You think you're the customer. But really, you're the product. Also, 7 other things worth reading today.

I’m Bill Murphy Jr. Welcome to Understandably. Thanks for reading.
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Imagine that you had a thriving business with far more potential customers than you could possibly serve.

Imagine that it didn’t matter how high you priced your product, or the hoops you created to make potential customers jump through. You couldn’t tamp down demand if you tried.

Imagine that people were so desperate to buy from you that they hired consultants to make themselves look more attractive — and sometimes even broke the law to try to move ahead of others.

Imagine, in other words, that you were an admissions director or other high administrator at an elite U.S. college or university.

Admissions rates have plummeted at elite American colleges in recent years. Not unrelated, aspiring students apply to an average of about eight schools each.

Now, The Wall Street Journal is reporting on a specific way that many colleges are trying to drive their admissions rates down even more: they’re buying student leads from The College Board at 47 cents a piece, so they can encourage the students to apply and be rejected.

This seems insane on the face of it, until you realize two things:

  • More applications for a static number of places means a lower admissions rate;

  • A lower admissions rate translates to a higher ranking on the annual college guides that many students use to decide where to apply in the first place.

It probably doesn’t hurt the math, too, to realize that there’s usually a fee of between $50 and $75 on average simply to apply at most colleges.

The Journal uses the example of an Illinois high school student named Jori Johnson, who took a practice SAT test and soon received brochures from Vanderbilt, Stanford, Northwestern and the University of Chicago.

She applied to all four; all four then rejected her.

“I just stared at my computer and cried,” said Johnson, who wound up attending New York University.

One of those colleges, Vanderbilt, which bought “between 100,000 and 200,000” student leads last year from the College Board, tripled its number of applicants between 2002 and 2017, while its admit rate fell from 46 percent to 11 percent.

That’s still double the admit rate at Harvard (5.2 percent), which has also seen its number of applications basically double since 2006: 19,527 to 39,506.

I get it. But I don’t get it.

I have a radical idea. Elite colleges should expand. The thriving ones should (maybe) acquire the struggling ones.

It’s what would happen in virtually any other industry. Any other business.

If you had more customers than you knew what to do with, either you’d find a way to serve them or your competitors would.

But I sense there’s a factor missing in the equation. It reminds me of a classic line that supposedly originated at another elite institution: Harvard Business School.

An MBA student was arguing with someone in the administration: “Why are you treating me like this? I’m the customer!”

“No you’re not,” the administrator supposedly said. “You’re the product.”

Here are 7 other things I think are worth the time to read:

  1. Facebook says 100 developers improperly accessed user data. (The Verge)

  2. The world is getting noisier, and our ears are paying the price. (NPR)

  3. A new study of West Point cadets says “grit” is a more important predictor of success than brains or physical strength. (Me, on

  4. Facebook has a new logo, and it looks like this: FACEBOOK. (Inc.)

  5. How to find the data that companies use to compute your secret consumer scores. (The New York Times)

  6. Bill Gates devotes another $10 million for Alzheimer’s research. (Fortune)

  7. Some journalists who were at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 say they’re being diagnosed with cancer at a higher than expected rate. (CNN)

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