Everything you’ve heard about getting in is about to go out the window.
Brenzel had more than enough applications from well off students whose parents had wangled them into the right Manhattan preschool and shelled out tens of thousands of dollars for private “admissions consultants.” What he didn’t have enough of was first-generation and immigrant college students, people from rural areas, young men and women with unusual and offbeat talents, or, say, low-income black students from the tough part of town with a strong will and an enthusiasm for math. He couldn’t just wait for them to apply—most had no idea that Yale might want them, or that the college’s generous financial aid program would allow them to go for free. With budget cuts forcing many guidance counselors to take on 500 students or more, the public school system wasn’t much help. Brenzel would have to seek these students out.
The problem was that his means of doing so were very limited. It’s one thing to expand the universe of potential feeder high schools from Andover to P.S. 109 and the academically rigorous Catholic high school in the state capital. In this day and age, Brenzel needed to look everywhere. But the last real technological advance in college admissions had happened six decades earlier, with the invention of the SAT. Every year Yale would buy a list of students who scored above a certain SAT threshold and reported having a certain grade point average. Yale would mail these tens of thousands of students a standard glossy brochure. Brenzel knew that most of them weren’t good enough to get into Yale and would be rejected if they applied. But there was no other way to find the few who were good enough to get in.
Most admissions directors don’t lose any sleep over the number of brochures they send out. The more applications, the lower the admission rate, the better the college looks. But Brenzel’s Jesuit training and philosophical education gnawed at him. Inducing unqualified students to apply seemed ethically suspect. What if, because of him, they failed to apply to a good school that would have them? What if he prevented them from making the right match?
He also knew that, by definition, he was missing the most brilliant, interesting, and multidimensional students who happened to fall just short of the threshold SAT. They were out there, somewhere. But he couldn’t see them, and they didn’t know that he was looking.
The problem was hardly unique to Yale. In an ideal world, colleges would be able to study their admissions data, using statistical analysis to identify the patterns and behaviors likely to produce a good match. Are their SAT thresholds set in the right place? What high school courses are best correlated to graduating from college? Colleges have very little ability to answer these questions, because admissions information is still largely stored on pieces of paper. Many colleges have purchased systems that scan transcripts and teacher recommendations into electronic files that can be viewed on computers. But those are just images of pieces of paper. They don’t represent information that can be mined for insight.
Because the information that might help them is entombed in file folders, colleges resort to an expensive, inefficient, scattershot strategy. A typical midrange private college looking to enroll 1,200 freshmen might buy a list of 350,000 names from the College Board. An expensive but poorly targeted direct-mail campaign leads to 11,000 applications. They accept 5,000, of whom only 1,200 choose to enroll. Of those, more than half drop out or transfer, leaving the college struggling to bring in enough tuition revenue to pay their bills and left with no option other than buying another 350,000 names.
Students have a similar problem. It’s hard to choose the right college. Higher education is what economists call an “experiential good,” something you can’t fully understand until after you purchase and experience it. As parents of college age children know, students often assemble a list of prospective schools through a frighteningly arbitrary process of hearsay, peer misinformation, and fleeting impressions gained during slickly produced college tours. Or, worse, they don’t assemble a prospective list at all and default to inexpensive, nearby institutions. Some of those local colleges are terrible places to go to school. (See “College Dropout Factories,” September/October 2010.) Too many students don’t find out until it’s too late.
Soon after settling into the dean’s office, Jeff Brenzel started trying to solve some of these problems. Like many other colleges, Yale began by scanning paper documents into electronic files. The Common Application, which is used by several hundred mostly selective colleges, began providing more information in digital form.
But Brenzel needed to do more than just increase the efficiency of the information flow from existing applicants. He needed to find new applicants, students who weren’t showing up in the traditional pool, and convince them to apply to Yale. To locate them, he turned to someone who had also made it to the Ivy League through a combination of hard work and being in the right place at the right time. His name was Craig Powell, the founder and president of ConnectEDU.
B y the time he reached eighth grade, Craig Powell had all the markings of a classic American achiever. As head of the 1991 middle school student council in rural Maryville, Missouri, he shook hands with the governor and won his school national recognition from President Bush. High school was more of the same: the only freshman on the speech and debate team, youth leadership training, class president four years running. Craig knew that a good college came next. But he didn’t know how to get there—or where “there” even was. All his guidance counselor could suggest was taking the ACT. Craig scored a 28, the equivalent of 1260 on the SAT. That was good, but a hair below the threshold that would have put him on the mailing list of the colleges that matched his powerful but vague aspirations. For most students like Craig, this would have been the end of any grand designs.
But Craig Powell stood out in one other way. In 1994 and 1995, he amassed a record of sixty-three wins and zero losses in Missouri Class 1A wrestling, 189-pound division, taking home the state championship both years. The big midwestern sports machines noticed. Dozens recruited him. Seven college wrestling coaches made the trip to Craig’s living room in Maryville, full scholarships in hand.
He turned them all down. Craig knew that by taking a scholarship he would be seen as a wrestler first, a student second. He graduated from high school with no idea what to do next, other than go to work at a fireworks stand. Again, that could have been the end of his larger aspirations. But what followed instead was a series of improbable events involving a chance phone call; an Army scholarship to an East Coast prep school; a shoulder injury that kept Craig out of West Point; and, ultimately, admission to Brown University—a school Craig had never heard of until after he left Missouri.
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