In this Aug. 21, 2020, file photo, diplomas stand at the ready before a drive-thru graduation ceremony on the University of Southern Maine's Gorham campus. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Maine’s second-biggest public university used a software platform to promote itself to white students in northern New England while targeting minority students in Massachusetts, a practice that the institution said it no longer uses.

The University of Southern Maine did that targeting in 2016 through a contract with the company that owned Naviance, a college readiness software provider that also runs an advertising platform. The $27,000 contract was first published earlier this month in an article by The Markup detailing how Naviance markets colleges and universities to prospective students.

The granular look at one piece of the public university’s past recruiting efforts comes amid a reckoning around race-based admissions at American institutions. The conservative-led U.S. Supreme Court agreed last week to hear a case challenging race-based admissions at the private Harvard University in Massachusetts and the public University of North Carolina.

Naviance allowed schools to tailor what type of student might see advertising based on several demographics, including race and location. In USM’s case, it advertised the university to Black, white and Hispanic students in Massachusetts and only white students in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

The decision to target diverse students in Massachusetts was meant to be practical, said University of Maine System spokesperson Dan Demeritt, who noted that Massachusetts has a larger and more diverse population compared with the northern states and the university only had so much money to spend on the platform.

“The decision was made with the understanding that we have a great deal more visibility with all students in Maine,” Demeritt said.

The university has since moved away from diversity targeting, Demeritt said. But the practice shows the ways schools compete with each other and how they tailor outreach. The school advertises through various mediums, from television to social media, radio and bus wraps.

Another system official pointed to the university’s Lewiston campus as a place where diverse students can be reached by the university. The school makes other efforts to be more inclusive that do not have to do with advertising, such as a diversity council and multicultural resources.

The 2016 contract details the types of students the school wanted to target — called an “active match” — and the schools USM viewed as competitors in Maine and other states in 2016. In many cases, students from states covered by the contract who were viewing information on the University of New Hampshire may also have seen an advertisement for USM.

The ability to target students based on race was only part of the contract for one year, the system officials said. A $118,000 contract in 2021 with Intersect, a similar company to Naviance that now shares the same owner, shows no race-based options.

PowerSchool, the company that acquired Naviance and Intersect in 2021, said in a statement the ability to exclude minority students had been removed before it bought the companies. The Markup reviewed contracts in other states with Naviance that retained the ability to target students based on race.