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

Craig was still dating his high school girlfriend when he made it to Brown. She was two years younger and finishing high school in Barnard, Missouri, a no-stoplight town with a graduating class of nine students. She grew up living in a trailer with her divorced mother, a nursing aide who took home $13,000 a year. The biggest event of her senior year involved her uncle being arrested for murder after running over his wife with a combine. Haley was smart, had good grades, and wanted to get the hell out of Barnard, Missouri.

Craig brought Haley to New England to look at schools. She settled on Providence College, filled out the application, and waited for news. In February, Craig began pestering her: Are you sure you filled out all the financial aid forms? Wasn’t there one more? No, she said, it’s fine. Weeks later, good news arrived in the mail. She had gotten in to Providence College. Tears of joy were shed; now they just had to wait for the financial aid package.

More weeks went by. The package never arrived. Finally they called the college. What financial aid? the college said. You never filled out the last form, “Part B”—the one with seven short questions simply confirming that all the financial information you submitted in Part A (like the fact that your divorced mother lives in a trailer and earns $13,000 a year) is still correct. So we assumed you didn’t need any financial aid, and now it’s all gone.

Craig called Providence College pretending to be her uncle (not the one with the combine). He pleaded with their sense of mission and public obligation. Isn’t she the kind of student you’re here to serve? He eventually wore them down, and they cobbled together a financial aid package heavy on loans. Craig and Haley didn’t stay together. But she did enroll at Providence College. In fact, she earned top grades, married the class president, held the ceremony on campus, and still works in higher education today.

While at Brown, Craig showed an early knack for entrepreneurship. He started a company called Ivy Tutors and staffed it with classmates who provided extra help to area high school students. In the process, he realized that northwest Missouri wasn’t the only place where your educational destination had a lot do with where you start. A few blocks north of the Brown campus is Hope High School, a notoriously dysfunctional public institution riddled by poverty and low performance. Directly across the street is Moses Brown School, an elite private academy that sends its graduates into the upper reaches of higher education. Craig charged students from places like Moses Brown one price and used the proceeds to charge parents from places like Hope High much less.

During the summer between semesters, Craig also worked for a large financial firm that invested in the health care industry. The dot-com revolution was well under way, so they sent Craig to San Francisco to spend time with entrepreneurs who were trying to digitize the vast troves of medical information locked in paper medical records. The old analog health record system was wasting phenomenal amounts of money and resulting in substandard—even fatal—medical outcomes.

Craig saw clear parallels in college admissions. In what kind of world can a few checkmarks on Form B be the difference between one kind of life and another? The higher education system had sent seven recruiters promising full scholarships to his living room because he was good at pinning people to a mat. Why hadn’t anyone come because he was smart and driven and the only freshman on the speech and debate team? And what about all the other students who weren’t quite so driven or quite so lucky—shouldn’t they have a choice other than Northwest Missouri State? Craig hadn’t won another tournament, he realized; he had won a lottery—one in which some people got a fistful of tickets and others none at all. That insight, paired with the realization that there was profit to be made in overturning the current system, became the seed of ConnectEDU.

C onnectEDU has two main types of clients. The first are middle and high schools and, by extension, the families served by them. The company sets up a series of Web sites for students, parents, and guidance counselors. All of the students’ academic information—course descriptions, grades, standardized test scores, interest inventories, and more—are loaded in. Starting in the seventh grade, students can log on and start filling out short questionnaires that help them figure out where they might like to go to college. Then the computer program lays out a path describing all the steps the student will need to take to get there. This is what Jameel Reid and his classmates have access to, starting this year.

There’s a lot of focus on course selection. Selective colleges like to see a progression of increasingly difficult courses, particularly in science and math. To take Calculus in the twelfth grade, you have to take Algebra I in the eighth grade. Some students, like Jameel, figure this out on their own. But many others don’t learn how important this is until they start seriously looking at colleges in the eleventh grade or later—years too late. ConnectEDU continually analyzes data from hundreds of thousands of students to refine and identify the pathways that are most likely to lead to college success. The program analyzes lists of potential colleges, compares them to students’ academic trajectory, and tells them if they’re shooting too high or not high enough. (The Air Force uses similar algorithms to adjust the in-flight trajectory of guided missiles.)

The program also tracks deadlines for admissions testing, scholarship applications, and financial aid, and sends alerts to students’ mobile phones when problems—e.g., “You haven’t filled out Part B”—occur. Parents and guidance counselors can also access the data. With many school budgets in crisis and student-to-guidance counselor ratios soaring, such tools can be crucial.

Then, when college application season approaches, the ConnectEDU “SuperAPP” program automatically populates the applications of students’ target colleges with information from its database. Typically, 85 percent of each application is already filled out before students and parents lift a finger. The program helped students in the impoverished Detroit public school system fill out over 4,000 college applications in one week.

All of this is completely free for high schools. That’s because ConnectEDU makes most of its money from the second set of clients: colleges and universities.

Kevin Carey directs 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.

  • lovesky7631 on October 17, 2011 1:02 AM:

    I have always loved men, sexy men. As I got older I continued to be attracted to younger men. I find myself now in my mid 40��s having sex with 18 to 35 year old men. I still like the bad boy type, or jocks with sexy good looks. Being a wealthy woman (trust fund baby), I can allow myself to enjoy sex without the need for a husband. I prefer to date middle class ��Joes��, I LOVE police officers, firemen and Military men. I set up a profile on ------Cougara.( 0 m-----. If you want to meet me, you search the usename:hotmomma on the site. You see more my info and photos. It is really free daing site for all users.

  • 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