Getting Ready for the College Board’s New Connections Feature and What It Means for Search
Starting this fall, the way institutions will engage with student records available through the College Board will expand beyond direct-to-student “search” to an additional method called Connections. RHB is here to decode what it means for you and how we can help you maximize your institutional effectiveness in this new environment.
Like many of you, we’ve watched the College Board’s March 29 video describing their Year 2 subscription model updates, which included the introduction of Connections, an additional way for colleges to connect with prospective students. (And, like many of you, we had some questions about the implications of and opportunities with this new approach.)
RHB’s Enrollment Management team met with members of the College Board team to address those questions. Here’s what we’ve learned (so far) about the changes we will see for the 2023-2024 subscription cycle.
Student Search Service—what we traditionally think of as “Search”—is still in place.
Institutions will still be able to build lists composed of individual students who meet their selection criteria using the College Board’s variables (e.g., graduation year, test scores, geography, high school academic performance, intended major). Likewise, institutions will be able to reach out directly to students as they have in the past, whether it’s through print or digital outreach, or both, because they will have essential personal information each student chooses to share. RHB clients who have brought their search in house to leverage the power of Slate portals in their search strategy will still be able to rely on this highly personalized tool for coherent student engagement.
One change worth noting, however, is that the universe of students available through Student Search Service will be limited to students who opt-in when they register for or complete any of the following:
- SAT Weekend (i.e., pencil and paper test takers)
- AP Registration
- Non assessment pathways, such as those who create accounts on CB.org or Big Future, or SAT Practice
Students who participate in in-school assessments will only be available to institutions through Connections. Those are:
- PSAT 10
- SAT School Day
College Board officials shared that about two-thirds of students who enter the College Board universe do so through the Student Search Service door, and about one-third enter through what will now be Connections. Students will be available in both places.
Mobile app only
When they take in-school assessments, students will give their cell phone numbers to the College Board, which sends students a link to download BigFuture School, which serves as the place where students will receive their test scores, college advice and access to Connections, if (as they do with Student Search Service) they opt in to receive information about colleges that are interested in them. College Board officials shared with us that there are currently no plans for a browser-based version at launch, citing that 95% of students have access to a mobile phone. Nonetheless, we note here our concern about the potential for an inequitable experience for students who may not have easy access to a cell phone.
Privacy protection will change when institutions receive student information
This new service is designed to protect students’ personally identifiable information (PII). Unlike in traditional search, where individual student data (e.g., name, email, address, academic interest, etc.) are available to institutions after they license a list containing those students, through Connections, individual student records will be invisible to colleges until students choose to raise their hand in response to campaigns the colleges conduct within Connections.
Unlike traditional search where institutions can use a series of variables to narrow in on their desired students—for example, high school juniors in the greater Chicago area who identify as Hispanic with an interest in engineering, have scored above 1000 on the PSAT and self-report a GPA of B+ or better—there are now three variables available for colleges to choose from:
- Graduation Year: In year one of Connections, there will be two options for graduation year: Class of 2025 and Classes of 2026 and 2027 combined.
- Geography: The College Board has subdivided the U.S. into 29 geographic regions of roughly similar population sizes. For example, one territory includes Utah, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, whereas the state of Texas comprises three territories unto itself.
- Test score bands: There are five bands, each containing roughly the same number of students roughly similar sizes: 900 or less; 910 to 1090; 1100 to 1210; 1220 to 1350; 1360 and up. In the information shared with us, there was no distinction between PSAT and SAT scores.
Using these three variables—which, in all their permutations, add up to a total of 290 possible combinations—colleges build the Audiences they wish to reach. Following the pattern of their current subscription plans, the College Board will offer different quantities of Connections Audiences in each plan tier, with only the top tier having access to all 290 audiences. (In the College Board webinar, you’ll see, for example, that Access D plans will have 100,000 names available through Student Search Service and 30 Audiences, Access E will have 200,000 and 60, respectively, and so on. Institutions can license additional audiences a la carte.)
Going back to our example, if an institution is interested in reaching budding Chicago engineers who identify as Hispanic, they must build an Audience by selecting the combined group of 2026 and 2027 students; the Chicago and Northwest Indiana territory (which is the only way to include Chicago in this new model); and the 910 to 1090 test score band. Included in that particular Audience, as you have probably surmised, will be a large number of students who may (or may not) fit the institution’s selection criteria, but who, nonetheless, will be available to that college.
Joseph Montgomery, RHB’s Dan Saracino Chair for Enrollment Management, notes that working with Audiences will be like fishing in new bodies of water. Colleges will be less sure about what they will be catching … and will have to adjust the way they fish.
Segmentation and Communicating with Students in Connections
Within each Connections Audience is where colleges will put these new fishing skills to the test. We have not yet seen a full list of the specific selection criteria colleges can use in Connections to reach their desired students. The College Board has shared glimpses of what the user interface looks like for students. We know that participating institutions will each build a profile within the platform and be able to send up to ten messages to populations within an Audience. Messages can include text, images and a link to a request for information form. (Yes, it sort of sounds like Cappex or old-school Zinch to us, too.)
What This Means for You
We note that this is not a replacement of traditional search; it is an additional channel through which you can access students to build your institutional pipeline. At the same time, we also note that this is going to change the way colleges reach out to students available through the College Board’s suite of services.
The College Board has signaled that they will share more details during a monthly webinar series running from May through August, each revealing a different facet of this new engagement model. They also indicated that institutions will be able to familiarize themselves with the Connections space between September and the end of November before students are able to access Connections for the first time in early December. RHB will be meeting regularly with College Board officials throughout the summer and fall and will share more insights with clients and publicly along the way.