Admission Espionage

Posted by Jesse | Posted in Ethics, Higher Education | Posted on 05-02-2008


The education industry is a funny creature. We go to conferences and openly share experiences, strategies, and methods. Then we go home, sign up fictitious characters on other schools’ mailing lists with our home addresses to get the actual materials and communications. We create applications (not submitting them of course…) with other schools’ to see what kinds of designs others have, and what questions are asked.

My question- Is this Ethical?

Could you consider this espionage? Let’s break it down. Our communication flows and application process is considered our informal intellectual property. It’s how we put things together to make our class every year. It’s how we hope to create a program that will be better than our competition (schools our size and region). Would you want to disclose your entire communication flow to a school with comparable size and region?

If your answer is no, then your stance on this subject seems to be set in stone.

If you are willing to share your information with competitors, then this issue takes on a different light. There’s no harm in asking your counterparts in other institutions how they do things. I think most of the time (especially at conferences) you will find people extremely receptive to sharing at least the framework of what they are doing. The likelihood increases when the information sharing is reciprocal.  You also have the added benefits of being open, honest, and helpful.

This Admission espionage is something that you can’t really enforce, or even identify – it’s just up to the honor system here. One thing people may or may not think about is the amount of money you cause a school to spend on fake prospects. We all know each school has a substantial budget and money for 1 campaign doesn’t seem like much – but what if 10-20 schools are “testing” another institutions’ communication flow? Now we’re talking about hundreds of dollars being spent – and they’re making a direct financial impact on the “target”.

So what do you think? Is this just something we do, or should we think twice about signing up Mickey Mousee to check out University X’s visit piece?

Comments posted (11)

At conferences, I think people will give you a “sample” but they hold back the recipe to the “secret sauce.” [EXCEPT for Earl Macam because DePauw is that good!]

I think signing up for mail flow is unnecessary. Most people have (or know people with) kids. You can get brochures at college fairs. And with the turnover in admissions, new employees bring ideas from former institutions.

I’ve really wanted to go on “real” campus tours but I think that would crossing the line. Especially when you end up seeing someone again at IACAC.

Good point, Brad.

What would probably make sense is to create a web service that will gather and review all that material (by creating a fake identity) and make it available to interested admissions offices via the Web – actually if you offer a subscription to this service, here is a business model that could generate some revenue and decrease the hidden costs for the institutions that are subject to this espionage. Win-win.

So, when do we start this business, Brad?

Well, since I (Jesse) wrote this entry – Karine, email me with your busines plan and lets get started. :)

An interesting thought – sort of a volunteer service/membership idea. Only those who divulge the information have access to other’s campaigns. Very interesting indeed…

When I first started in admissions two years ago, I signed up my cat on Now, I hate to admit it, but then I thought I was genius. She is STILL getting credit card offers. Hmmm….

We’ve taken tours of other campuses, but we called in advance, set up an appointment, etc. My school has benefited because of the kindness of another Admissions Professional (the aforementioned Earl Macam). I think we can ask the right questions and get what we need without spilling all. Besides, if we did get mailings from 13 other colleges, think of how cluttered our mailbox would be?

Just my thoughts!

So- to steer this back a bit, it seems like most of us (including me) have done this in one way or another.

Is it ethical? Knowingly getting in some other institutions campaigns to gather information on what they do- and what they send, the frequencies, etc. – WITHOUT the intent of gathering information to make a decision on attending that institution?

Great post Jesse (I guess I could have walked 2 offices down to tell you that… :) )

I haven’t signed up for anything online, but I have received my fair share of ideas and information through networking and conferences, or by directly contacting others. For example, our Butler Basketball Facebook App came from the goodwill of Mike at Allegheny, who gladly shared details at HighEdWeb, on CollegeWebEditor, and then later via email after I contacted him.

As far as it being ethical, I’m still in the air about it but I lean more towards unethical. There are underlying costs involved to this practice; they might be small but we all know college admissions aren’t known for their lofty budgets. The cost of sending emails, printing brochures, postage on mailings, etc., could certainly add up depending on how widespread the practice is.

And you would know this more than me, but would our rating system ultimately make those who are TRULY interested in Butler fall to a lower rating than pseudo-students at other universities who are just acting extremely interested to get their hands on whatever they can? If that is a situation, than I definitely throw the ethics flag. Interrupting comm flows and decreasing mailings for other students is a big no-no in my book.

I’ve been on other college’s mailing lists through the years, and typically join four or five lists a year nowadays.

And, like many people in higher ed, I’ve had friends and relatives ask me for a list of colleges to consider based on interests, majors, personalities, etc.

I’ve referred friends, relatives, and even inquiries to my own school to other schools based on what I’ve learned from mailing lists, and also keep these schools in mind for my own kids someday.

(For instance, I recently referred a student to Butler for anthropology, a program we don’t offer, and six months ago I didn’t even know Butler offered an anthropology major.)

Here’s an interesting parallel to muddy the waters a bit more. You have a child of your own, niece/nephew, neighbor’s kid, etc., who is receiving a bunch of mail and e-mail from colleges. They are nice enough to pass it on to you, since they have no intention of enrolling at most of these schools.

If you are opposed to the idea of joining another college’s mailing list due to the costs it incurs that college, should you actually encourage the person to remove themselves from the mailing lists instead of passing along this interesting info to you?

Karine’s idea is interesting, and one that is readily available in the business world. Some aspects are available for free:

By the way, most (all?) of the student search companies embed seed names into search lists. Their contracts likely allow this to be sure you are not violating the list rental TOS, but they are 1. Costing you money on mailings and 2. Able to aggregate search campaign intelligence (timing, brochures, letter copy) from thousands of schools. Search is a piece that is generally invisible to competitors. I wonder what the search companies are doing with this info?

Geez… I did it again. Sorry, Jesse :-)

Brad, you got to add the author in SquaredPeg’s RSS feed, so I stop calling Jesse “Brad” and assume you write everything on this blog ;-)

Retail stores send their reps to competitor stores to check prices and make sure they’re competitive. Business and corporation continually spy on each other. Higher education is one of the most open, sharing industries I know. I don’t have a problem with getting on another institution’s mailing list.
This and other practices in the search for ideas has been common for a long time.

I’ve signed myself up (maiden name) on other school’s sites.

My feelings? Most of the schools we request information from are public. For example, anyone could technically put in a request for our mail flows, and we’d have to let them know. It’s sunshine laws and as a private entity, that’s just how it is.

But as far as the private university side of things, I feel that if I sign up online, they are the right to review my data and choose whether or not to send me items.

We’ve also called around for view book samples from other schools. Generally, they’re pretty forthcoming. Like if any of you called me up and said, D.W., send me a copy of your view book, I sure would. I’d even tell you how to get on our mail list, if you want, so you can see all our cool pieces.

I think there’s just something about higher ed that makes us more open than private industry.


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