To determine ‘demonstrated interest,’ some schools are tracking how quickly prospective students open email and whether they click links

Some colleges, in an effort to sort through a growing number of applications, are quietly tracking prospective students’ online interaction with the schools and considering it in deciding whom to admit.

Enrollment officers at institutions including Seton Hall University, Quinnipiac University and Dickinson College know down to the second when prospective students opened an email from the school, how long they spent reading it and whether they clicked through to any links. Boston University knows if prospective students RSVP’d online to an event—and then didn’t show.

Schools use this information to help determine what they call “demonstrated interest,” or how much consideration an applicant is giving their school. Demonstrated interest is becoming increasingly important as colleges face a rising number of applications and want to protect or improve their yields—the percentage of accepted applicants who enroll.

Gregory Eichhorn, vice president for admissions at Quinnipiac in Hamden, Conn., said the technological sophistication of the analysis has ramped up considerably.

“If we ask someone for an interview, we look at how they respond, how quickly they respond or if they don’t respond at all,” said Mr. Eichhorn. “It helps us make a decision.”

At Seton Hall University, in South Orange, N.J., students receive a score between 1 and 100 that reflects their demonstrated interest, said Alyssa McCloud, vice president of enrollment management. The score includes about 80 variables including how long they spent on the school’s website, whether they opened emails and at what point in high school they started looking on the website (the earlier the better).

Many students have no idea they are being tracked, or to what extent.

Demonstrated interest started becoming important about a decade ago with the growth of the common application, which allows students to apply to more schools with little additional effort. Schools saw a rise in applicants but a drop in yield among accepted students. Yield fell among four-year, private, not-for-profit colleges to 34.5% in 2017 from 49% in 2003, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of federal data. A drop can hurt a school’s reputation and make filling its class a challenge.

In 2017, 37% of 493 schools surveyed by the National Association of College Admission Counseling said they consider demonstrated interest to be of moderate importance—on par with teacher recommendations, class rank and extracurricular activities. It carried less weight than grades, class rigor or board scores.

Admissions officers say information on demonstrated interest is generally used to decide on borderline candidates. Some schools explain on their websites or during information sessions that demonstrated interest is considered part of the admissions process.

“We tell students it’s important to establish a relationship,” said Kelly Walter, the dean of admissions at Boston University.

Colleges also have low-tech means to help determine demonstrated interest. Last year, one-third of students who applied to American University either visited its Washington, D.C., campus or attended an information session about the school, said Andrea Felder, assistant vice provost for undergraduate admissions. Two-thirds of those admitted took part in either the campus tour or offsite information session.

“It is certainly a factor in our decision making,” Ms. Felder said. “It helps us in predicting which students are likely to enroll.”

Schools can buy software that tracks data on prospective students. Among the largest providers is Technolutions Inc. The company’s chief executive, Alexander Clark, says its product, Slate, generates a dashboard summarizing thousands of data points on each student and is used by 850 schools.

Privacy advocates voiced concern that students were being taken advantage of.

“This feels pretty creepy to me. It raises very significant privacy concerns. It feels like surveillance and I don’t think it’s a healthy thing for schools to do,” said James Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, a California-based nonprofit group that advocates for privacy online. “Universities should not take privacy rights for granted. This seems like something Facebook would do, not a university.”

Mary Ethington, an independent college admissions counselor outside of Chicago, tells students to relax, assume their web traffic with the school is being monitored and to open every email from a college as if it were homework.

“The anxiety comes from not knowing whether a school tracks or doesn’t track,” she said. “We just want the schools to be transparent.”

Mary Hinton, a senior at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., benefited from demonstrated interest without knowing it. After she toured Dickinson in high school, she sent a thank-you note to her tour guide, at her mother’s suggestion.

Now a tour guide herself, Ms. Hinton has learned those notes are forwarded from tour guides to admissions officers. Her advice to prospective students about thank-you notes: “Write them. It just takes a minute and it can make a difference.”

Cathy Davenport, Dickinson’s dean of admissions, said such information is part of a holistic admissions review. “From my perspective, you can’t isolate one variable. It’s more complicated. There is no one size fits all,” she said.

Corrections & Amplifications
In a previous version of this article, Quinnipiac University was incorrectly called Quinnipiac College in one reference. (Jan. 26)