The Dark Side Of College Mail


Elisha V.

A 111-page FIT brochure made of cardstock paper and a mirror cover.

Elisha V

Last week, I opened a hefty mail package addressed to me – something that rarely happens in our increasingly virtual and email-driven world. In my hands was a 111-page book made of high quality, thick construction paper and a mirror-paper cover. Without the small FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) emblem in the corner of the cover, this brochure could have easily been mistaken for an expensive coffee table photography book – but it was actually just college mail in its finest form.

These 111 pages are filled with colourful, artsy photos and graphic design layouts, showcasing the work of current FIT students and providing extensive information about FIT courses and applications. After contentedly skimming through these beautiful images, something was irking me – I’m not considering art colleges or even US colleges in general, so what is the use of this book? More importantly, how many other high school juniors are bombarded with expensive college mail like this that will ultimately end up in the trash?

Although paper is often passed off as environmentally friendly because it can be recycled, it actually contributes to around 26% of total waste at landfills worldwide. College mail is very inconsequential in terms of the broader environmental and climate issues facing the planet, but I still feel uneasy about the wastefulness of these glossy pamphlets. Granted, most college marketing is done online nowadays, but this extensive FIT brochure – that was sent to me simply because I went to an event sponsored by FIT in 2019, which landed me in their email database – seems to take college mail too far. 

Aside from the wasteful impact of this type of college marketing, a book like this – with the vibrant coloured ink, thick paper, and specialized features like reflective paper and pop outs – has a significant cost to print. Colleges may be wasting a lot of money from marketing to students who will most likely discard the email or brochure without even glancing at the information, but it’s practically impossible to determine how effective college marketing is. 

Colleges prioritize marketing extremely highly, paying 42 cents for each student email and address from the Student Search Service, a College Board database students can opt in to receive copious amounts of college marketing. Students who hastily check the Student Search Service box on the PSAT/SAT pre-administration questions allow colleges access to their information – such as demographics, potential majors, test scores – which is then used for marketing purposes. The language of college marketing directly addresses students, as though the college specifically wants to recruit YOU and is perfectly matched to your personal information. But colleges cast their marketing nets so wide that receiving college mail does not mean the college has been marketed to you because of a specific reason other than being a part of a database. This marketing is so untargeted that it’s common for students who listed interest in four-year colleges, for example, to get ads for two-year technical schools. 

Many students sign up for Student Search Service because they think it will help them explore colleges that match their information, but the inundation of un-specific college mail may just exacerbate the stress students face during the college search. 

Ultimately, colleges are businesses — even if they are public or not-for-profit — with aims to maximise applications and profit. There is nothing inherently unethical about colleges marketing to students; in fact, it may seem like a net positive because they are attempting to recruit students who may not have easy access to college information. However, there is an ugly story behind the floods of emails and mail. 

Colleges are constantly trying to up their spot in college ranking lists in order to appear more prestigious and selective. To do so, a college needs to have a very low acceptance rate. A part of the reason colleges market so heavily is for this very reason: the wider they cast their nets for marketing, the more applications they get and then decline, the more selective they appear. One cited example of this is the University of Chicago, who market to students who the college knows don’t have the test scores or GPA to be accepted. These students may waste their time and money, and get their hopes up for an application as a result of unfair marketing driven by poor intentions.

With all that said, I don’t think college mail or marketing should cease to exist. I do, however, oppose the wasteful and expensive brochures sent by mail, and the floods of extremely non-personalized ads. More broadly, college marketing is part of the so-called “college industrial complex.” In simple terms, colleges have increasingly become designed to maximise profit over their commitment to education and access. Amidst the aggressively competitive landscape of college ranking lists, colleges turn to this type of relentless marketing, turning student inboxes and mailboxes into Times Squares overloaded with ads, without necessarily considering the environmental impact and the harm to students’ college application journeys.