A high-school student’s name is sold to colleges, on average, 18 times.

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? Virtual Events

Today at 2 p.m. ET on LinkedIn Live, I’ll be talking about what the world of work will look like on the other side of the pandemic.

  • My guests: Rachel Carlson, co-founder and CEO of Guild Education, and Paul Freedman, president of the Learning Marketplace at Guild. Guild pioneered the model of managing tuition benefits for companies like Walmart and Chipotle and guiding their employees to its educational partners.

No need to sign up. Just join live on my LinkedIn page (or if you follow me, you’ll get a notifiction when we’re on).

On Monday at 1 p.m. ET, we’ll be talking about re-opening plans in higher ed as I join Paul Dosal of the University of South FloridaKim Hunter Reed, Louisiana’s Commission of Higher Education, and others on a Whiteboard Advisors webinar. This conversation you have to register for. Do that for free here.

Recruiting Students in the Pandemic Era

Bill Royall passed away late last month in Richmond, Virginia. He was 74.

In higher-education admissions circles, Royall was a legend — equally admired and criticized (sometimes by the same people) for his tactics in marketing colleges and universities over the last four decades. He was head of Royall & Company, a firm known for leading the assault on the mailboxes of American teenagers. If you’ve ever been inundated with mail (and e-mail) from colleges, you have Bill Royall to thank.

The backstory: Royall was a political marketing consultant in the late 1980s when he was approached by the admissions director at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. The all-men’s college would become Royall’s first higher-education client.

  • Royall was stunned by how higher education recruited students when he first started working for Hampden-Sydney. Colleges bought too few names of prospective students, in Royall’s opinion, and waited for high schoolers to contact them instead of flooding them with mail to gin up interest.
  • The campus brochure existed long before Royall entered the scene, but what he perfected was making the colorful college “viewbook” as commonplace in the mailboxes of American teenage homes as an L.L.Bean catalog.

Last year, I met Royall while researching my forthcoming book, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions. I spent time with him in Richmond to learn more about the evolution of direct marketing in higher ed.

  • Until the early 1980s, schools that actively marketed to students were seen as “hucksters,” in the words of former Penn admissions dean, Lee Stetson.
  • But the last of the Baby Boomers were leaving colleges then, and to survive many colleges had to go out and find students to fill classrooms and dorms.

Colleges were helped in their quest to find students by a service the College Board had started in the early 1970s called Student Search, which sold the names and addresses of test takers — in other words, prospective students — to admissions offices.

While visiting Royall, he told me a story that, at first, seemed too good of a tale to be true. I spent weeks interviewing several people, including former Royall employees, to confirm the details.

  • Before the rise of the Internet, the College Board released its name buys to colleges and consultants only a few times a year on 9-inch reels sent by FedEx.
  • So, to beat the competition, Royall came up with a plan to bypass the FedEx delivery.

Here’s the rest of the account from Chapter 1 of the book:

One summer afternoon in 1997, he sent a twin-engine Beechcraft Baron to New Jersey to intercept the tape delivery from a FedEx processing center near Newark airport. Two men — one the Beechcraft’s pilot and the other a Royall executive — loaded 150 boxes into the back of their aircraft, the seats removed to make enough room. As the sun set, the prop-plane was cleared for takeoff on its return to Richmond.

When it landed, Bill Royall met the aircraft and its precious cargo on the tarmac. The men transferred the boxes into a waiting truck and the group sped off on the thirty-minute drive to Royall’s headquarters. Despite the late hour, the office was full. Workers opened each box revealing the stacks of tapes, each with a slice of student names purchased by a specific client…

Workers fed the reels into a machine that spit out letters addressed to each of the students by their first name. The letters included other personal details — their intended major, interests in school — and the all-important tear-off reply card.

A few weeks later, Bill Royall’s phone started to ring steadily with calls from clients, letting him know his strategy had succeeded — mountains of reply cards were arriving on their campuses every day…

From now on, Royall told his team, he wanted his schools to be first in the mailboxes of students — before they had a chance to fall in love with another college.

The current context: Search is bigger than ever for the College Board. It sells names to nearly 2,000 colleges and scholarship organizations, up from 1,600 a decade ago.

  • A student’s name is sold, on average, 18 times over her high school career, and some names have been purchased more than 70 times — all at a cost now of 45 cents a name, each time it’s requested among those test takers who opt in.

Why this matters now: The coronavirus prevented more than a million first-time SAT takers in the high-school class of 2021 from taking the test this spring and summer. The canceled ACT/SAT doesn’t only leave rising seniors lacking a score; it also results in the loss of names for colleges to fill the top of their recruitment funnel. Without those names, colleges will have to think differently about how to find prospective applicants in the coming year.

One last note on Royall: In December 2014, the Advisory Board Company bought Royall & Company for $850 million.

When I visited Royall, he was more than gracious with his time. We went through his archives. We talked at length about the history of enrollment marketing. Rest in Peace, Bill.

Read more: A sample from Chapter 1, exclusive for subscribers of this newsletter.

If you pre-order the book now, you’ll also get these bonus goodies.

Photo by Hunter James on Unsplash

On Campuses, Going in Reverse

Many colleges and universities are realizing their reopening plans from just a few weeks ago are now too optimistic. In recent days, Occidental, Dickinson, and Rhodes were the latest colleges to abandon plans for in-person learning this fall.

Why it matters: Many colleges are returning to their remote learning plans of the spring, which were widely panned by students.

  • In a survey of over 3,000 students in the U.S. and Canada by Top Hat, an education-technology company, nearly 80 percent of respondents said their online courses lacked the engagement of in-person classes.
  • Half said online was worse than face-to-face instruction; 16 percent said it was a lot worse.

The big picture: In place of all the time, effort, and money colleges are spending on trying to resume on-campus instruction this fall — efforts that may be in vain due to factors outside colleges’ control — they should instead be focused on improving last semester’s remote experience. That’s from a guest essay I wrote in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education.

In talking to academic leaders and individual faculty members over the last several weeks, I found some institutions and lots of grassroots efforts among faculty to improve pedagogy and online teaching, but it still pales in comparison to what colleges are trying to do on the re-opening front.

  • Trinity Washington University is spending $300,000 to help faculty design better courses and train them in online learning.
  • Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching designed a new virtual course- design institute in April. It walks faculty through an online course design a few hours a day over the course of two weeks. Some 300 faculty have gone through the institute this summer.
  • More than 40,000 faculty members signed up for this week’s Remote Summit at Arizona State University.

Bottom line: Institutions that invested in their digital backbone over the last decade found the abrupt shift to remote learning easier. Building a structure for online and hybrid learning, however, is expensive. Colleges might have to give up something to do it well, and they don’t often have a taste for trade-offs.

Keep reading (Chronicle of Higher Education, subscription required)


A Reshaping of the Job Market, Part I (The New York Times)

Even groups that regularly disagree on labor issues said there should be significant public investment in programs that can upgrade the skills of American workers.

A Reshaping of the Job Market, Part II (Google)

Google announced a fascinating new job training program this week that includes career certificates. What’s interesting is that Google will treat these certificates as the equivalent of four-year degrees.

Public-private partnerships are vital for regional state universities to further their missions and thrive (Insider Higher Ed)

The president of Northern Kentucky University, Ashish Vaidya, writes in Inside Higher Ed about the partnerships that have been critical for his university during this pandemic.

As always, thanks for subscribing.

Cheers — Jeff

To get in touch, find me on TwitterFacebookInstagram, and LinkedIn.

Jeff has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published in September...