Everything you’ve heard about getting in is about to go out the window.
Processing paper is expensive and time-consuming. Filing clerks cost money, and admissions officers can’t start reviewing a file until all of the pieces have been assembled. The all-paper process that Yale was still using in 2005 (and many colleges still use today) costs a high-volume admissions department about $30 per application to process and eighty-five days to complete, according to ConnectEDU. Applications that come through ConnectEDU cost about $1 to process and arrive instantaneously. Craig Powell’s business proposition to colleges is straightforward: Give me some of the savings and keep the rest for yourself. Your applications will be cheaper, faster, more accurate, and protected against the kind of fraud that allowed an ethically challenged young man named Adam Wheeler to fake his way into Harvard a few years ago. Instead of pieces of paper with data printed on them, or digital images of pieces of paper, you’ll get actual data that you can analyze to make better decisions about whom to admit.
Business models like this depend on “network effects,” where the more clients you have, the more your service is worth. Software developers want to write apps for the iPhone because there are a lot of iPhones. There are a lot of iPhones because people want to be able to choose from among a lot of apps. Once a business reaches a tipping point of market share, network effect logic takes over and everyone gets rich. Similarly, the value of ConnectEDU to high schools rises as the number of colleges accepting applications from the company’s data system goes up, and the value to colleges rises with each new participating high school.
There are other players in this market, including the Common Application and a company called Naviance, which offers electronic college planning tools for high school students. The virtue of ConnectEDU, though, is that it spans the entire process, from late middle school into college and beyond. The company’s first foray into the market came in 2006, when it signed up three colleges and fifteen high schools. In 2007, it was up to thirty-five high schools and 300 colleges. It began signing up school districts instead of individual schools, then moved to contracts with entire states, starting with Michigan. The number of high schools increased to 700 in 2008, 1,700 in 2009, and 2,500 in 2010. That amounts to about 2.5 million students. The Miami-Dade County school system joined the network last year. The state of Hawaii signed up in May 2011.
The number of colleges using the service has also increased, to 450, representing a decent—though not quite commanding—subset of the schools that receive large numbers of applications. Yale signed up in 2008.
If network effects take hold and millions more students are added to the ConnectEDU system, Craig Powell will soon have a database containing phenomenal amounts of information about students in grades seven to twelve. Things like the exact sequence of courses they have taken, and their grades in each one. Their extracurriculars, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate test scores, and whether they qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. Instead of a snapshot of where students are at one point in time, the data will show the pattern of where they have been and where they are headed. It will show, in other words, all of the things that people like Jeff Brenzel want to know about students but can’t get from the College Board. Things he currently only finds out only after students submit an application.
Strict federal privacy laws prevent ConnectEDU from releasing personally identifiable information about students without their permission. But what it can do is let Jeff Brenzel sit down at his desk and search the ConnectEDU database for promising students who don’t show up on the list of names he gets from the College Board. ConnectEDU would then send an e-mail and text message to each student on the list that says “The admissions director of Yale University would like to send you a personal e-mail. Are you interested?” A Facebook-style friend request, in other words. All the College Board can sell is a haystack in which colleges can rummage around, trying to find a needle. ConnectEDU will be selling access to the needle itself.
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.
He can, in other words, start approaching the task of finding the best students in the United States in the same way that big-time wrestling coaches in the Midwest approach the task of recruiting unusually quick and strong young men to wrestle at 189 pounds. He won’t be limited to the relatively small number of high schools to which Yale can send an in-person representative, or to the ones that have placed students at the university before. He won’t have to wait until applications arrive, at which point it’s too late to provide any meaningful advice. The guided-missile algorithms will be turned in the other direction, helping him find the students who are most likely to succeed. He’ll know exactly where to find who he’s looking for, whether it’s Little Haiti or a no-stoplight town in rural Missouri or anywhere else.
Best-of-the-best institutions like Yale are in intense competition with peers like Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford for students who combine brilliance and diverse backgrounds. Much like the SAT in its early days, ConnectEDU will give its early adopters a leg up, which will likely cause their rivals to follow suit. Instead of choosing among tens of thousands of applicants, top schools will eventually be choosing among all 3.3 million students who graduate from high school each year. And as striving students in foreign countries become part of the system (ConnectEDU has clients in Canada and Australia) the number will get larger still. Favored private schools, test prep, essay-writing consultants, and other well-worn paths to privilege for not-quite-exceptional children of means will narrow.
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