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College Board Student Search Program Under Fire For Selling Prospective Students’ Information

The Admissions Office leads tours from its visitor center in Agassiz House on James Street.
The Admissions Office leads tours from its visitor center in Agassiz House on James Street. By Zadoc I. N. Gee
By Camille G. Caldera, Crimson Staff Writer

The longtime college admissions practice of purchasing student names and information from the College Board — in which Harvard has long participated — has come under scrutiny from experts who say the program commodifies admissions and violates student privacy.

The College Board’s Student Search Program licenses lists of high school students’ names and approximate PSAT or SAT scores, in addition to a limited amount of other demographic information like ethnicity.

Combinations from up to 2.5 million names are distributed to 1,900 accredited colleges and universities, scholarship organizations, and non-profit programs. The dissemination of this information is intended to help students “start important conversations with colleges and scholarship organizations and explore their options,” per College Board spokesperson Zachary Goldberg.

In a typical year, more than 60 percent of the students who end up attending the College were among the names the College purchased from Student Search, according to Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane. The percentage is even higher — over 80 percent — for minority students at the College.

While the search is free for students, colleges and universities must pay 47 cents per name to license a student’s information.

Anthony P. Carnevale — the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce — said that he finds the practice of selling the names “questionable.”

“The students are being treated as a commodity,” Carnevale said. “The College Board is getting every last nickel that it can out of anybody who touches them.”

Goldberg wrote in an email that the College Board “re-invest[s] the funds” into programs like fee waivers and opens up the door for more students to enroll in colleges and universities.

Students who participate in the search are 12 percent more likely to enroll at a 4-year college, Goldberg said, referencing a College Board research study.

Experts questioned the intent of colleges that purchase prospective students’ names from the College Board.

Zak Harris, a former admissions officer at Johns Hopkins University and Bowdoin University who works at InGenius Prep, said he thinks purchasing names is useful because it helps tailor marketing materials to certain demographics.

“When you're buying search names, part of what you're able to do is to customize where they're coming from,” Harris said. “Colleges are buying names as a way to get into territories or get into markets where maybe they're not very popular.”

Carnevale said colleges may purchase these names to boost the number of applicants each year and lower their acceptance rate.

“There are two ways the names seem to have value for institutions. You get more people to turn down, which improves your standing, or you find people who you can accept that you're having difficulty finding,” Carnevale said.

Other experts have concerns about student privacy.

Leonie Haimson ‘76, co-chair of Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, said the current standard for student consent in the Student Search is troubling.

“One of the issues we have is that there is no parental consent required for this,” she said, calling the instructions to students “extremely confusing and often deceptive.”

Students must actively choose to opt-in and can opt-out of the Student Search at any time, Goldberg said.

Harris said more critical attention to admissions programs like the Student Search is needed, given increased scrutiny to college admissions in the wake of recent scandals.

In an investigation dubbed “Varsity Blues” that made headlines in March, federal authorities uncovered a nationwide scheme in which parents bribed coaches at elite universities like Yale and Stanford to designate their children as athletics recruits to increase their chances of admission. In April, the Boston Globe uncovered real estate transactions between the Harvard fencing coach and a parent of a recruited athlete.

“As we've seen with all of the admissions stuff happening over the past year to year and a half, I think it's fair to say that all of our kind of standard practices deserve some other level of scrutiny, to see if they can be better, and see if it's something that can be changed or edited in a way that is more inclusive or that is more fair,” Harris said.

—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.

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