College Board

Student Data For Sale

Next month, students will receive the results of their PSAT exams taken in October. Many may have indicated that they want to participate in the College Board’s student search service without fully understanding what this entails. To put it simply, the College Board sells student data to various schools, scholarship organizations and for-profit programs, setting off a massive marketing gambit to essentially increase their ‘demand’.


On their website, the College Board notes that nearly 1,900 colleges and scholarship organizations “use the Student Search Service to find students who are a good match for their institutions.” As a point of fact, the screenshot below came from neither a school nor a scholarship organization but rather an email of a for-profit “student leadership” program that purchases data from the College Board for its recruitment efforts. What’s worse is that this summer program lures students in by saying they are being honored with a nomination to attend.  A marketing ploy.

PSAT data for sale

Data that students agree to share from their PSAT, SAT, and AP results include the following key demographic items:

  • Name
  • Birthdate
  • Expected high school graduation
  • Home address information
  • Gender
  • Ethnicity

Additionally, the PSAT and SAT ask students for their personal email addresses and request they self-report their high school GPAs.


Students who share their data are soon deluged with an avalanche of college brochures and their inboxes are flooded with recruitment messages. It’s an easy way for students to begin their college search but they have no idea how their name got on a particular school’s distribution list. The purchasing of student information is how and as you can see, many schools partake.

In the recent Wall Street Journal article “For Sale: SAT Takers’ Names. Colleges Buy Student Data and Boost Exclusivity,” the College Board shared that each year, those 1,900 schools and organizations buy 2 to 2.5 million names. Schools use a series of filters to micro-target students with specific demographics – perhaps combining geography, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and academic interest – and then segmenting that by PSAT scores. The strategy is two-fold: 1) identify a core group of students across key demographic categories whose testing and self-reported grades would put them in the top 5% nationwide, and 2) identify a group of students who would make up the “heart of the pool” — bright and high-achieving but not atypical in the applicant pool. Schools order names in 50-point score ranges but do not see a student’s exact scores.

Some schools buy upwards of 500,000 names a year. Why? It comes back to selectivity and the need to continue to grow the applicant pool to either increase or maintain a hyper-level of selectivity. If a school has 95,000 applications and only admits 20% of them, they appear a more competitive and exclusive institution.

Tulane University is cited as a case study. According to the WSJ, the university said it bought about 300,000 names last year from College Board. Tulane’s applicant pool climbed 174 percent between 2002 and 2017 and its acceptance rate declined 62 percent, federal data show. Vanderbilt, also cited in the article, notes that it bought between 100,000 and 200,000 names last year. Data presented in the article show that Vanderbilt’s applications have climbed 220 percent in that same time period and its acceptance rate has declined by 35 percent. This ploy utilized by colleges plays on the ever-present hope for admittance and leads to a frenzy of applications. Receiving ‘recruitment’ brochures and emails from top colleges should in no way be taken as a ‘sign’ that you’re on the way to being admitted.

College Board student data for sale


Students –know that if you fill out the pre-test survey you are giving the College Board permission to sell your data and prepare for a flood of recruiting communications from all kinds of schools and organizations. Don’t be fooled or lulled into complacency thinking this is your IN.

Instead, be a savvy consumer of this information. Understand that colleges are seeking to build their applicant pools with students who are likely to be solid candidates while knowing full well that the vast majority of these students whose data they are purchasing in hopes of them applying, will eventually be turned down for a spot in the first-year class.

Remember that ‘optional’ truly means optional when it comes to providing the College Board with all this information. (Keep in mind, ‘optional’ doesn’t always mean optional when it comes to supplemental testing! If a school says subject test scores are optional, rest assured your peer applicants WILL be submitting them!) You can opt in every time you register for a test or opt out of the Student Search Service at any time. Be the master of your inbox and feel free to unsubscribe (link typically found in the footer of these emails) from any and all schools you aren’t interested in. You’ve enough on your plate and dealing with spam marketing ploys shouldn’t be one of them.

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