Features

September/October 2011 The End of College Admissions As We Know It

Everything you’ve heard about getting in is about to go out the window.

By Kevin Carey

(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.

Kevin Carey is the director of the Education Policy program at the New America Foundation.

Comments

  • Susie Watts on August 29, 2011 11:58 PM:

    As a private college counselor, I hope to hear a follow-up on this story about Jameel getting into college and having a successful experience. ConnectEDU sounds like a great place for students to start. My job is to also help students find schools that are a good fit. The more resources students have, the better college decisions they will make and the more higher education will be available to all students, regardless of their income or economic status.

    College Direction
    http://www.collegedirection.org

  • Alan Haas on August 30, 2011 1:23 PM:

    This is a profoundly interesting and important article and must reading for parents, teachers, counselors and college administrators. Bravo!

    Alan Haas, CEP
    Independent Educational Consultant
    EDUCATIONAL FUTURES
    New Canaan, CT.
    educationalfutures.com

  • Morris Pelzel on August 30, 2011 2:53 PM:

    Very interesting, but what if your child's high school is not a client of ConnectEDU? Is there any way for individual students to participate apart from doing so through their high school?

  • DRF on August 30, 2011 3:10 PM:

    "Its hard to choose the right college." Actually, it isn't so hard, principally because, for most prospective college students, there are really lots of "right" colleges. If one is an academically competitive high school student, qualified to gain acceptance to one of the so-called "elite" colleges, one will discover that there a quite a large number of such schools. And, in truth, for the most part, these schools are pretty much all alike. Sure, there are some superficial differences--geographic location, size, public vs. private--but the academics at all of these schools are consistent.

    Most students are content with their experience at their college. Given how arbitrary students are in the selection process, this suggests that, with rare exceptions, students are going to be happy wherever they go (or, conversely, unhappy wherever they go).

  • George Leef on August 31, 2011 3:40 PM:

    This development is indeed interesting, but I am not persuaded that it is necessarily better for students like Jameel to go to "top" universities. The "top" schools do not teach their students calculus or chemistry or anything else better than do most other institutions. Often, the teaching of undergraduates is notably worse, as it is farmed out to grad students and often dominated by what Professor Murray Sperber calls "the faculty/student non-aggression pact." No doubt, many students are poorly matched to the schools at which they enroll, but going to a "better" school isn't always going to be an improvement.

  • Neal Holly on August 31, 2011 3:58 PM:

    I'm sure this sounds ideal for people for people who do not understand the complexity of the college access issue we have in the United States. However, someone has to pay for this service, the school system, the parent, the tax payer... there's a profit to be made indeed.

    If it is matter of finding the "right" college, students and parents can use the College Navigator, a free service through the U.S. Department of Education. While I appreciate Mr. Carey's attention in including Dr. Bowen's research and a brief history of the development of barriers to college access, I would have liked to have seen other examples of efforts to improve college access, beyond connectedu. The Virginia Wizard program is great example of a free service that helps students in Virginia choose academic and technical pathways and fins institutions that meet their needs.

    Barriers to college access begin far before the actual application process. Creating another for-profit screening system and common application for the masses will not help low-income and underrepresented students gain access to better institutions.

    While I agree with the author that new and focused resources will emerge to meet the needs of low-income and underrepresented students, focusing on funneling large populations of students to the most elite institutions in the country is not the only answer.

  • Andrea Poetzsch on September 01, 2011 1:02 PM:

    ConnectEDU is a great resource and a partner network of Zinch. If you haven't heard of Zinch, it's a scholarship search and college interaction site that is free for students. It's the new wave of college admissions and interaction with on-campus college counselors. Think, LinkedIn meets college admissions. Really an incredible tool.

  • Outreach Manager on September 01, 2011 7:34 PM:

    Andrea Poetzsch ... Spoken like a true outreach manager from Zinch ... Keep hawkin!

  • Bill Zyer on September 01, 2011 11:11 PM:

    It's astounding that only now, in 2011, are colleges fully automating their selection and admissions processes. The rest of the world embraced computerization decades ago.

  • Admissions officers become guidance counselors on September 02, 2011 6:02 PM:

    From the article: "If students accept his friend request, Brenzel and his staff can start asking them more questions about their academic aspirations. He can do this long before college applications are due, in the sophomore or junior year. If a student falls short on the SAT, Brenzel can encourage them to take it again. If they're wavering on enrolling in a tough math class in their senior year, he can explain how much colleges like Yale value the inclination to tackle difficult courses."

    Who at the colleges will be filling the role of school counselor for these students? And won't this mitigate (if not completely outweigh) any savings associated with admissions offices using ConnectEDU?

  • Josh K. on September 04, 2011 3:39 PM:

    Michael Bastedo and Oran Jaquette have an article out in the current issue of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis that convincingly argues that eliminating "undermatching" will not do much good in terms of equalizing access to selective colleges (by the way, they also show that selective colleges have made strides since the 1990s in ameliorating undermatching).

    The problem is a lot more insidious: as selective colleges have come to give more and more weight to tested ability, kids from affluent families have been able to meet the ever-increasing high threshold to be considered entitled to attend a selective college.

    In other words, we need to tackle the arbitrarily high standards of merit used by selective college admissions officers that research shows has been increasing the past few decades. Upper-middle-class kids have been able to keep up with this; disadvantaged kids less so.

    Even granting that ConnectEDU will eliminate undermatching, I seriously doubt we will see a greater representation of disadvantaged students in selective colleges.

  • Steve Price on September 04, 2011 5:04 PM:

    I see at least two problems: the advantage will be to the tech-savvy kids in tech-rich districts, and it looks like another layer of too much information for kids inundated with with the nearly identical blather and glossy images of cute kids shot with stone and brick as fashion props.

    A middle school student starting to put together his college portfolio? Community colleges and state universities, like Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, are still going to be educating the majority of good students. The admissions process might look like an electronic trading market to admissions officers, but the students are still just human beings in an enormously stressful transition. Unlike a commodities purchase, most don't want to abandon support of family and friends because they got friended by a cool looking school halfway across the country.

  • reidmc on September 05, 2011 6:31 PM:

    Interesting business concept, but the article reads like a press release. And I'm not really tracking what Yale is doing here, as their brand already brings them enough low-income kids, at a variety of GPA/test-score levels, to fill their classes twice-over.

  • Wend93283 on September 07, 2011 1:06 AM:

    Here's an old-style SAT verbal analogy for you to ponder, with correct (???) answer included: Facebook is to Myspace as ConnectEDU is to Naviance/Hobsons. Does Craig Powell want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, privacy embarrassments, tell-all movies and all? Is it really true that the solution to the problem of inequality of condition and class privilege in our American higher education system can only be provided by education-is-a-business middlemen who own student confidential data to sell at a profit to elite institutions who can then continue business as usual without getting egg on their faces? Will this market-based model fly without legal challenges in the public (or private) education sector? Will this system really result in more students, especially underprivileged students, graduating from college? What are the privacy ramifications of this company owning access to all of this data on students who are have not yet reached the age of majority? (Ditto for Naviance - who is protecting student's privacy who use Naviance?) What are the ramifications of using electronic data to weed out students from the viable applicant pool unbeknownst to students, before students have even had to opportunity to investigate the schools or apply? Sorry, Mary Sue or Johnny, you may think you're a good fit for our institution, but our data tells us otherwise. Like the above poster asked, are the institutions using this system for kids from 7-12 really going to take primary responsibility to reach out and provide academic counseling to all the students who need it - really? Who's going to police the institutions' use of this data, and how much less transparency in the college admissions process will there be when decisions are made based on individual and aggregate data that no one gets to see except the people who pay for the privilege of access to the "product"? Who's to say that institutions that say they are using this product aren't still resorting to their same old methods of privileged access and manipulation of the market in attempts to achieve market dominance? Sorry for the blatant cynicism, but as much as there may be many benefits to such a system, this looks like one more company trying to cash in on the college market gravy train. All the talk of colleges having to explain their admissions policies when this system forces them to just sounds way too good to be true. I don't hear anything here that truly empowers students and families to function any better in an admissions marketplace that is dominated and controlled by the colleges and universities and their partner enrollment management business conglomerates.

  • Kathryn Miller, Miller Educational Consulting, Denver, CO on September 08, 2011 2:44 PM:

    As an independent educational consultant (who does not charge clients tens of thousands for my services!), I thoroughly enjoyed reading this historical perspective on the admissions process. I am fascinated by the evolution of ConnectEDU and see the value of its use to all students, but particularly my pro bono clients. Access to schools that are the best fit, academically, socially and financially, should be available for all students. I will continue to track the progress of ConnectEDU as a great tool to connect promising students with schools that might otherwise be unknown to them or considered out of reach. Thanks for the article!

  • Michael on September 16, 2011 9:31 AM:

    I googled Andrea Poetzsch. She works for Zinch. People looking at these comments must elimnate her attempt to advertise her company rather than commmenting on a thought provoking article.

  • mike on September 29, 2011 5:21 PM:

    I went to a standard middle class high school. My parents never received any degrees and I was raised in a single parent household. Besides the fact that I am a minority. I enrolled myself in a trade school, received an AS degree and started a career that now finds me with an additional AS, a BS and I just completed my Masters in December. I never spoke to any counselors in high school and did very poor on my SATs. Why was I able to pull myself up without all of this help that's required to help a minority succeed?

  • Jim on October 07, 2011 8:32 AM:

    Wow a fourteen year old who forgets his glasses can't find the right college? What a tragedy! Or maybe he can start looking at colleges when he is 15 or 16 and bring his glasses.

  • Ron Mexico on October 11, 2011 12:12 PM:

    Nice meaningless statistic: "MOST will either transfer or drop out."

    Presumably you are including community college students, who, you know, MOSTLY transfer to 4-year institutions before they finish an AA?

    Also: "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."

    I don't bid on antiques. But the notion that the stock market is a model of perfectly informed buyers is, well, more than a little laughable. Markets aren't efficient. Try again.

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  • Milan Moravec on October 20, 2011 6:34 PM:

    University of California discrimination against Californians. Chancellor Robert J Birgeneau ($500,000 salary) displaces Californians qualified for public university education at Cal. for a $50,600 payment and a foreign passport. Need for transparency at UC Berkeley has never been so clear.

    UC Berkeley, ranked # 70 Forbes, is not increasing enrollment. Birgeneau accepts $50,600 FOREIGN students at the expense of qualified instate Californians.

    UC Regent Chairwoman Lansing and President Yudof agree to discriminate against Californians for foreigners. Birgeneau, Yudof, Lansing need to answer to Californians.

    Opinions make a difference; email UC Board of Regents marsha.kelman@ucop.edu

  • Tim McD on November 01, 2011 2:32 PM:

    You need to understand that many of those "mismatches" are students who go into state schools BECAUSE they are poor and are smart enough not to take out six figure debt for a degree they can get for $25K from a good state school, and end up with a good local job because the local businesses know what they get with local school graduates, and end up with happy productive lives, getting exactly what they want.

  • J. Knight on November 01, 2011 2:45 PM:

    This all sounds quite interesting. But no one can do anything for free, so one wonders who is picking up the tab for such companies as Zinch and ConnectEDU. If it's not the student, then who? My guess is that the taxpayer is on the hook again.

  • JGreene on November 01, 2011 3:06 PM:

    There should be an automated system for students that will suggest to them the courses they need to take in High School to prepare them for college and to steer them away from enrolling in nonsensical non-academic Studies Courses that will condemn them to non careers with huge debt loads.

    The larger issue for students today is COST. Colleges and Universities are cheating students with their unfortunate "diverse" studies courses which produce "certified numbskulls" after four years.

    Eliminate 1/2 of all College and University Administrators and abolish the diversity programs. Lower tuition and provide a common sense education for $10,000. Yale, Harvard and the "elite" institutions will be fine. Most college students are getting ripped off.

  • Mark in Sandy Eggo on November 01, 2011 4:20 PM:

    J. Knight and others have commented on how they do not know how this system is paid for. There are also comments that are skeptical on whether this helps kids like Jameel, or points to "free" systems from US Dept of Ed and Virginia instead of a "evil" for-profit solution.

    The article described the value proposition! The idea is instead of employing legions of admissions clerks to read all this paper, you have the data that can be processed (by non-humans) at the source - from the High School.

    Yes, there may be golden nuggets that are missed. But for every one that is found by a dedicated Admissions Clerk, how many are missed because it was the end of the day, or the Admissions Clerk that had a student's application package in their in basket basically didn't care.

    Colleges are getting top heavy with administration, often with administrators equal in number to actual teaching/researching professors. Admissions is a big part of that, since they are looked at to solve the diversity objectives at the college. What is the old school way to solve this - hire more Admissions Clerks. My son is a high school junior, and his school uses Naviance. It is too late in his cycle to affect any change to ConnectEDU, but having competitors in any market is a good thing.

  • PacRim Jim on November 01, 2011 5:52 PM:

    That's why the Democrats want to expand the public sector, since government has demonstrated that it will hire practically any idiot.

  • Plutarch on November 01, 2011 5:58 PM:

    Oh, my. Is it possible? Can serial incompetence in cartelized education be rescued by magical algorithms? Perhaps irrational belief in algorithms is all that's left to cling to.

    The behemoths of sports will soon cleave from the NCAA and the vulgar, duplicitious and greedy grip of the university administrations. This cryptic for-profit industry doesn't need the academy to justify it's existence.

    As for the rest of Foucault's Preening America, the entire parlor society of postmodern Academe is at the precipice of going down like the Titantic. Unthinkable, I know. Yet lurking within these grand pretentious parlors of institutional majesty which float in detached grandure upon the deep sea of human reality, many timbers are rotted; the welds, corrupted by rust, hubris and pretensions of every sort.

    These fatally corrupt victorian monoliths are unsustainable. Institutionally, they are artifacts of conceit; the byproduct of decades of behavioralist racketeering. In no small way, they will sink to the bottom of hollow relevance like a stone; hollow hull split wide open by something authentic and solid.

    Onward shall the moribund scows of the victorian creed sail. They birth no talent. They create no cardinal idea.

    Their captive economy of accrediting parasitism is rapidly coming to a close. The fabulisms of their pretensions has simply become too ridiculous; too expensive; too disingenuous for a reasonably competent and intelligent person to endure.


  • J. Knight on November 01, 2011 6:01 PM:

    Look, I was one of the first to say that administrative bloat is one of the primary drivers of higher education costs, and if I thought for one minute that universities would deep-six all the admission clerks in favor of Zinch I would be happy. I'm just saying that the probibility is we will have both, and both at the taxpayer's expense.

    Let me also say that every High School I've ever seen has counselors who should be competant enough to advise students on college choices, or they should be fired. I'm pretty sure that this constant push for students to enter Ivy League and elite colleges is just a waste of time and resources anyway, and is one of the problems driving debt and costs as well.

    My oldest son graduated from high school in the top quarter of his class, made a 27 on his ACT, attended a small public college(6000 students), graduated in 4 years with no debt, and went to work with a starting salary of $70,000 a year. Two years later he makes six figures, owns his vehicle, and has bought a house. It's not nearly as complicated as you folks want to make it. His degree was in Mechanical Engineering, one of the sought after degrees. I would recommend Jameel Reid do the same thing since he has an interest in math. The company my son works for is seeking qualified engineers right now, and since there is not one minority now on staff, he would be assured a job. The company is begging for minority engineers as we speak.

  • Dopey on November 01, 2011 9:41 PM:

    Dude, you spelled "grandeur" incorrectly.

  • allabout on February 27, 2012 5:17 AM:

    thanks for nice information. The problem is a lot more insidious: as selective colleges have come to give more and more weight to tested ability, kids from affluent families have been able to meet the ever-increasing high threshold to be considered entitled to attend a selective college.some information about universities and colleges
    if possible visit http://allaboutedu.com/universities-and-colleges