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.

The same tools will create a moment of truth for America’s most renowned institutions of higher education. The status quo in admissions has beneficiaries as well as victims—when a qualified poor student misses out on the Ivy League, a more well-off student usually goes in her stead. That’s one reason there are twenty-five upper-income students in elite colleges and universities for every lower-income student. ConnectEDU will allow admissions deans to reach out and find kids like Jameel with an ease and precision far beyond what they can accomplish today. The top schools swear up and down that they would love to admit more disadvantaged students, if only they could get them to apply. As college admissions transitions to an electronic market, we’ll find out if they really mean it.

If they do, slots in the most elite colleges will be even harder to come by than they are today. In a radically more efficient higher education market, only the brightest and most distinctive students will have a chance to attend the best schools. It’s hard enough to get into an Ivy League university when 30,000 people apply for a few thousand spots. Soon, applicants will be effectively competing with every other student in the world. The whole concept of a college “application” will start to fall by the wayside. And as a result, the higher education system will become more like the meritocracy it has long pretended to be.

I t wasn’t so long ago that the very idea of someone like Jameel Reid going to college seemed absurd. At the end of World War II, America’s elite colleges were still enclaves of white male Protestantism where character, athletic ability, and the family name were far more important than academic prowess. The man most responsible for changing this was Harvard University President James Conant, who believed that an ascendant postwar America needed to be led by an intellectual elite, not the inheritors of privilege. To identify those students, he helped broker the creation of the Educational Testing Service, publisher of the SAT. As Nicholas Lemann describes in his definitive history, The Big Test, this paper-and-pencil test of word associations and math problems would become, and remains, the nation’s single most important instrument for sorting and assigning students to different levels of educational opportunity.

Once Harvard made this shift, other elite universities risked becoming backwaters if they didn’t follow suit. Yale, which came to the admissions revolution later than its archrival did, undertook its shake-up in the mid-1960s, when the university hired a twenty-nine-year-old Yale alum named R. Inslee “Inky” Clark as admissions dean. Clark promptly fired his entire staff, staunched the flow of guaranteed prep school admits, and began hunting for bright students in exotic locales like Brooklyn. The university also phased out admissions policies that discriminated against groups like Catholics, minorities, and women. As the number of Yale students from the likes of Andover fell by half, William F. Buckley, a proud product of the old system, complained that “[t]he son of an alumnus, who goes to a private preparatory school, now has less chance of getting in than some boy from P.S. 109 somewhere.”

One of the first students to benefit from the new system was a Kentuckian named Jeff Brenzel. While his parents had never been to college, they valued education and sent him to an all-boys Catholic high school in Louisville. Brenzel’s father was Catholic and had his heart set on sending his valedictorian son to Notre Dame. But the Xaverian Brothers who ran Jeff’s high school wanted the prestige of Ivy-educated graduates, and Jeff believed in the time-honored principle that one’s parents must be wrong. He enrolled at Yale in 1971, one of only two Kentuckians who made the journey to New Haven that year. If he had been born five years earlier, there would have been no place for him, but he wasn’t, so there was. Brenzel went on to spend two years as a Jesuit novice, earn a PhD in philosophy, and work in the business world for two decades before returning to Yale as director of the alumni association. In 2005, the university asked him to take the job that Inky Clark had used to such effect: admissions dean.

The Yale Office of Undergraduate Admissions is located in a converted mansion on the north side of campus. The dean’s office is on the second floor, facing the street, with a couch, a fireplace, and an expanse of white bookshelves that Brenzel has filled with books about higher education. But the heart of the place is a short elevator ride down, in the basement. There, a single room with a low ceiling and cinderblock walls leads to a set of wide double doors in the rear where, until recently, a fleet of U.S. Postal Service trucks would back up and disgorge an absolutely phenomenal amount of paper every year.

The pile would grow with each passing application season. As the number of college students in America and around the world increased exponentially and the value of college degrees rose, a winner-takes-all effect had taken hold. Prestige led to more prestige, wealth to more wealth. The most elite colleges had become globally recognized, immensely valuable brands with multibillion-dollar endowments. The number of applications for the 1,300 annual spots at Yale shot upward, from just over 14,000 in 2001 to nearly 20,000 in 2005. (More than 27,000 applied for the 2011-12 freshman class.) Since Yale itself wasn’t growing nearly as quickly, admission rates dropped, augmenting the aura of exclusivity and prompting even more people to apply. The numbers at other elite schools looked much the same.

This created a huge data-processing challenge. Every application has multiple parts: transcripts, recommendation letters, SAT scores, Advanced Placement scores, high school profiles, personal essays, and more. When Brenzel arrived at Yale, the pieces didn’t all arrive at once. The ETS would mail official SAT scores, guidance counselors would send sealed teacher recommendations and transcripts, and the students would send the applications. Yale had to hire scores of temporary workers to sit at desks in the basement, opening envelopes, sorting through documents, and putting them in files. Then it had to hire a staff of admissions officers who would pull the tens of thousands of files from rolling metal library shelves installed at the other end of the room, read them, and try to identify the chosen few. Even for a university as rich as Yale, it was hard to keep up.

Yet, paradoxically, Brenzel still didn’t have all the information he needed. The college admissions world had changed drastically since the 1960s. Admissions deans at schools like Yale weren’t just expected to enroll the best and brightest. They were charged with “crafting” a perfectly balanced class of students—one that combined various kinds of budding genius with ethnic, racial, regional, and economic diversity, while simultaneously accommodating the diminished but still-powerful imperative to admit legacies and the children of the rich and powerful.

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.

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.

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.

Other colleges slightly lower in the heap talk a good game about serving the public interest, but their actions suggest more dubious motives. As the annual Washington Monthly suggest, some well-known institutions have bought their way up the prestige ladder by all but excluding low-income students, focusing instead on recruiting the children of wealthy donors and politicians, or students whose SAT scores drive up their U.S. News & World Report ranking. Poor students require financial aid, and status-seeking universities would rather spend their money on new buildings and a winning basketball team. If ConnectEDU works as its designers hope, it will smoke out colleges that pay mere lip service to the goal of social mobility. Even if they don’t go looking for the Jameels of this world, ConnectEDU will help the Jameels find them. These schools will be inundated with applications from worthy non-rich students, and they’ll have to explain to the public why their doors are shut.

Most colleges, of course, aren’t very selective; they’re mainly looking to fill seats. Many of these institutions have also signed on as ConnectEDU clients. One can imagine them using a tool like ConnectEDU to indiscriminately spam millions of unsuspecting students, like so many Facebook friend requests from your mom’s cousin’s best friend. That said, less-selective colleges also face a challenge that Jeff Brenzel doesn’t have to worry about: enrolling students who won’t wash out within weeks of arriving. Used wisely, the company’s algorithms will help them find students who are likely to stick, succeed, and maybe even raise the school’s game academically. The new software tools will also help the average student become a shrewder shopper. Rather than defaulting to the local community college or open-access university, they’ll be able to find out earlier in high school what kind of courses will get them into a better college—and where that better college might be. Mediocre local colleges and universities will start to lose their captive audience. As the market becomes more efficient, more students will enroll in the right college at the beginning of the process and emerge with a diploma at the end.

C raig Powell lives in Boston now. His company takes up the entire twentieth floor of a downtown office tower owned by the Federal Reserve. On a clear day, you can look east and see Harvard and MIT. Craig comes to work in the jeans, jacket, and boots of a successful Internet entrepreneur. The only signs of northwest Missouri are his ears, cauliflowered by years on the wrestling mat. He doesn’t want to fix them. They remind him of how far he’s come.

ConnectEDU software designers traveled to Yale last year to interview admissions officers about how, exactly, they would like to search for prospective students. This summer, in the lull before the deluge of applications begins again in the fall, Jeff Brenzel and his staff began putting the ConnectEDU system to work. They’re searching in particular for two qualities: underclassmen with an aptitude for challenging courses in science and math, and low-income students who are earning good grades.

Jameel Reid, meanwhile, is about to begin his sophomore year. He enjoyed Algebra II last school year and got excellent marks, although he didn’t think his teacher was tough enough. For the coming year, he’s signed up for Geometry, Physics, and two computer courses: Engineering Technology and Technology Studies. The university he most wants to attend is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, because he understands it to be one of the best engineering schools. Beyond that, he’s not sure where to apply—somewhere with a good degree in computer sciences, he guesses.

Perhaps Yale or another ConnectEDU client will find Jameel and clear his path to the Ivy League. Or perhaps ConnectEDU will help him find an institution like Purdue University, a well-regarded Midwestern engineering school that would love to enroll more smart minority students. Jameel walked right by the Purdue booth at the college fair, because it didn’t have the word “technology” in its name and he didn’t have anyone along to help him understand what he was missing. Now he does, and that could make all the difference.

Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation.


  • 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

  • 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
    New Canaan, CT.

  • 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