Everything you’ve heard about getting in is about to go out the window.
(UPDATE: A year later)
O n the morning of February 20, 2011, Jameel Reid woke up in the small apartment he shares with his mother on the far north end of Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood. He ate a cursory breakfast, laced up his sneakers, slung a brown nylon backpack over both shoulders, and walked out to the bus stop, determined to find his future.
Jameel is fourteen years old and a high school freshman, but he looks younger, slight and small. After an hour and a half on public transit, including one transfer and many stops and starts, a city bus deposited him on the side of a road with no sidewalk near Miami International Airport. He walked a while in the gravel as cars rushed by. Finally, he turned a corner and came to the entrance of the Miami Airport convention center, where thousands of people were lined up outside.
At school the week before, a teacher had mentioned Miami’s 2011 National College Fair. Jameel knew he wanted to go to college; so here he was. But after walking into the cavernous convention center, he stopped short. All of the other kids were there with their parents or a group of friends, he realized, with lists of prospective schools at the ready. He was alone. There were hundreds of college booths lined up in rows, each staffed by a smiling representative standing behind a stack of glossy brochures. Which ones should he go to? And when he got there, what should he do?
The floor was crowded, and Jameel, who is nearsighted, belatedly discovered that he had left his glasses at home. Okay—he liked computers and video games and thought maybe he could design them someday. That’s why he had enrolled in Honors Algebra II, the most advanced math class he could sign up for, and put himself on the college-prep science track. Computers were technology, right? That was a place to start. He carefully walked up and down each aisle, squinting at the signs on the wall, looking for colleges that had the word “technology” in their name.
It was hard to get anyone’s attention. Jameel’s voice is whisper soft with a slight stammer, and nearly everyone was bigger and taller. He would stand to the side and wait, for minutes sometimes, invisible to the college recruiters, until a spot opened up at a table where he could move in for a moment and grab a brochure. He stuffed them in his backpack and after several hours finally turned to leave the convention center, find his bus, and head for home.
Jameel is such a smart, motivated young man that it’s tempting to assume that things will work out for him, that he is bound to find his way to a good college or university. But the evidence suggests that such an outcome is far from certain. In 2009, the former Princeton University president William Bowen documented the pervasive problem of “under-matching” in higher education. Bowen examined a group of North Carolina high school students from across the income spectrum whose grades and SAT scores were good enough to get them into a top-tier university. Seventy-three percent of wealthy high performing students actually enrolled in such a university.
Only 41 percent of low-income high-performing students did the same. The under-matching rates for minority students and those whose parents never graduated from high school were similarly low. And under-matched students were significantly less likely to earn a college degree.
There are a number of reasons for this. Bad high schools usually lack the guidance counselors and visiting college recruiters that well-off students take for granted. Parents who haven’t been to college can’t use their experience to guide their children toward higher education. Plus, elite colleges are often very expensive and are becoming more so every year.
But there’s another culprit at work: the college admissions process itself. If you want to buy shares of stock, bid on antiques, search for a job, or look for Mr. Right in 2011, you will likely go to a marketplace driven by the electronic exchange of information. There will be quick, flexible transactions, broad access to buyers and sellers, and powerful algorithms that efficiently match supply and demand. If you are a student looking for a college or a college looking for a student, by contrast, you’re stuck with an archaic, over-complicated, under-managed system that still relies on things like bus trips to airport convention centers and the physical transmission of pieces of paper. That’s why under-matching is so pervasive. The higher education market only works for students who have the resources to overcome its terrible inefficiency. Everyone else is out of luck.
As a result, the odds appear to be against Jameel, who attends a 1,600-student public high school where the large majority of children qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program and the staff of three guidance counselors was cut to two last year. Determination can take you only so far if there’s no one to help you find your way.
But Jameel’s local school system has made one recent move that might work significantly in his favor. A few days after returning from the college fair, Jameel logged on to a new Web site that is the result of a contract between the Miami-Dade County school system and a Boston-based company called ConnectEDU. The site offered Jameel loads of information about different colleges and universities, along with strategies for filling out college applications and getting scholarships and financial aid. It was also a vessel for information about Jameel himself—his grades, courses, and activities, along with short animated quizzes designed to identify his strengths and goals. There were checklists and schedules and friendly reminders, all tailored to the personal aspirations the site had gleaned from Jameel, all focused on identifying the colleges that might meet them.
This is the future of college admissions. The market for matching colleges and students is about to undergo a wholesale transformation to electronic form. When the time comes for Jameel to apply to colleges, ConnectEDU will take all of the information it has gathered and use sophisticated algorithms to find the best colleges likely to accept him—to find a match for Jameel in the same way that Amazon uses millions of sales records to advise customers about what books they might like to buy and Match.com helps the lovelorn find a compatible date. At the same time, on the other side of the looking glass, college admissions officers will be peering into ConnectEDU’s trove of data to search for the right mix of students.
This won’t just help the brightest, most driven kids. Bad matching is a problem throughout higher education, from top to bottom. Among all students who enroll in college, most will either transfer or drop out. For African American students and those whose parents never went to college, the transfer/dropout rate is closer to two-thirds. Most students don’t live in the resource-rich, intensely college-focused environment that upper-middle-class students take for granted. So they often default to whatever college is cheapest and closest to home. Tools like ConnectEDU will give them a way to find something better.
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