There are no Stealth Applicants. But there are a lot of Stealth Colleges


Lots of my colleagues are back from Toronto, where they attended the NACAC Conference.  Lots of discussion this year, as in previous years, has focused on “stealth applicants.”  I’ve never liked this term from the very first time I heard it. In fact, I find it offensive.

For those of you who don’t know, stealth applicants are those students who apply out of the blue; that is, they haven’t requested information from the admissions office in a formal way; as far as the admissions office can tell, they’ve never visited campus during a formal tour.  Never sat in a presentation at the high school.  Never even walked up to a table at the college fair.

Who do these kids think they are?

There are two problems with this: First is a problem of definition.  Many places farm Student Search and EOS mailings out to third-party vendors, and never load the names into their student database.  They’ve sent two or four or six or more emails, letters, or brochures to these students; the students assume they’re on the mailing list, and don’t take the time to request more information.  (Really, you’ve mailed them five pieces; do you think they’d automatically understand they should fill out a card to request more?)  The colleges thus don’t know these students were on the list of names they purchased from College Board or ACT, because they only put names in the database when students actively inquire via traditional means.  When students like this show up later as applicants, the admissions office is flummoxed.   So much for personal attention.

If you think about it, you could use this to teach Alanis Morissette the real definition of irony: Many of the colleges complaining about stealth applicants are the same ones who bombard students with emails that contain links to “Fast Apps” encouraging kids to apply to a school they’ve never heard of because a) it’s free and b) it’s easy.  The students should be referring to Stealth Colleges: They come out of nowhere, previously unseen, and drop weapons of class construction on the poor unsuspecting children (and yes, most of them are children.)

That’s the small problem.

The big problem is the arrogance of colleges: The assumption is that students should know they need to express some interest, because it’s so much easier for us.  And we think this way because fifty years ago, the only way you could find out about a college in the next state was to write and request information–often just a catalog.  (You could call, of course, but that was expensive.) Colleges got used to that: Everything was orderly and predictable.  No more: It’s now possible to find out almost everything you need to know about a place by looking online, not just on our websites, but dozens or hundreds of others, like College Confidential, College Prowler, Peterson’s, USNWR, etc.

And this, we seem to suggest, is the fault of the students.  They were born too late to figure out how things should be done.

Instead of blaming them, how about we understand the world has changed and deal with it?  Isn’t that one of the things you’re supposed to learn in college?  And isn’t part of the reason people laugh at colleges because we make so many assumptions about the way things should be, based on the way we feel the most comfortable?

It’s time for the profession to grow up.  These kids could teach you a thing or two.

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2 thoughts on “There are no Stealth Applicants. But there are a lot of Stealth Colleges

  1. I completely agree with you, Jon. Thanks for articulating exactly how I also feel about this issue. I attended the stealth applicants session at NACAC this year, and afterward asked the panelists a question along the same lines as your post. One director of admissions on the panel said that 44% of her applicants were “stealth.” Yet a large portion of that 44% were actually purchased names, so you’re exactly right…who’s stealth here, the college or the student? The term “stealth applicant” is highly problematic. It implies that the students are deviating from the “proper” system of applying. But look at how you and I make buying decisions today – we do extensive research online first about a product, we read buyer reviews first on amazon, we watch youtube product reviews. Universities are no longer in control. The term “stealth applicant” is indeed offensive and presumptuous. Tom Weede at Butler said something at his session that stuck out to me: as high school demographics shrink and supply (of universities) exceeds demand (from students), “students can call a lot more of the shots.”

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  2. Hi Jon – I hope that you know that I don’t consider “stealth” a pejorative term at all. It’s just a search style, and a style that makes things slightly more complicated for universities who haven’t figured out that prospective students today are very different from the prospects of 10+ years ago. In my work I tend to call them “stealth prospects” because we can’t see what they are doing before they apply – which is not to say that these students are doing something wrong! As Suzanne said, this is just how we do things now. Their search style has exposed a weakness in university admission operations, that universities have been slow to change processes and beliefs in response as technology and search styles have changed. Schools that want to be successful need to embrace the fact that prospective students search in many ways, and we need to change to meet their needs if we’re serious about making available the information students need to make good choices about their college options. I did discover at my own institution that in many cases we could see them coming down the road if we just looked for different signals. What I love about the way students are searching now is that they are really working to triangulate the data they receive, to confirm and reconfirm through multiple sources the accuracy of what they are being told. While not all of the sources they use are fabulous, their style suggests that these students are eager to consider and manipulate information in more nuanced ways.

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