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September 20, 2012 12:00 PM The Disconnect

By Sebastian Jones and Daniel Luzer

In last year’s College Guide issue, the Washington Monthly published an article by Kevin Carey titled “The End of College Admissions As We Know It.” The piece focused on ConnectEDU, a Boston-based tech start up that touted a data-driven method of matching high school students with colleges, and also claimed to be able to give admissions officers the ability to find and contact potential recruits based on very specific, otherwise unobtainable, criteria. Though other companies were seeking to simplify the college admissions process, ConnectEDU was promising to do something more substantial. “Our longer term goal, truly, is to democratize education,” the company has said. “ConnectEDU wants to be disruptive. We want to fix the education system.”

As Carey explained in the article, students were being given access to the company’s Connect! platform early in their high school careers, entering in critical pieces of information about their academic, extracurricular and financial lives, alongside data uploaded directly from their school districts. When the time to apply to college arrived, ConnectEDU would take “all of the information it has gathered and use sophisticated algorithms to find the best colleges likely to accept” students, providing matches, “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.” Then, with these recommendations in hand, students could use a service called “SuperAPP” to seamlessly apply to numerous schools in a single step that would include everything from their essays to their official transcripts.

Another promising feature examined in Carey’s piece was ConnectEDU’s “StudentRecruit”, which gave college admissions officers across the country the ability to search through ConnectEDU’s student database, find their ideal recruit and contact them. Much as ConnectEDU was proposing to introduce a system that allowed students to match themselves with schools beyond average SAT scores and grade points averages, this service would allow admissions officers to hand craft a far more diverse class of students, looking beyond the lists purchased from testing companies towards all manner of other attributes and skills. While admissions officers would not be able to see identifying information about the students like their names or addresses, they would be able to pore through ConnectEDU’s claimed 2.5 million users and limit their search with great specificity.

A year later, we were curious how things had progressed and whether ConnectEDU’s key components—the algorithm-driven matching, the seamless applications to colleges using the SuperAPP, and the vast searchable database of potential students for college admissions officers—were up and running. In reviewing the status of these features, we found the promising picture of the company painted by our original article does not live up to the current reality.

In an interview this July, ConnectEDU’s CEO Craig Powell explained that, at the current time, the algorithm matching between students and colleges is not occurring as described in the article, because there is not, as of yet, “enough data.” “I would run the risk of the recommendations being too generic that they’re not going to drive value or they’re not personalized,” Powell explained, instead suggesting that they were currently using algorithms for other tasks, such as aiding school districts’ efforts to improve graduation rates.

When asked how much the SuperAPP was being used by students to apply to colleges, Powell explained that it was “up and running, low volume,” later adding that the number was in the “thousands” and that “I can tell you that it’s going to be small numbers, because our approach has been piloting SuperAPP.” Powell also said that because of some misunderstandings about how SuperAPP worked, ConnectEDU decided not to deploy it across their entire system, instead “saying alright, timeout. We need to back this up and go into controlled environments.” Though Powell suggested he could provide additional up-to-date numbers, the company later refused, referring us to an anecdote involving a trial demonstration in Detroit that involved 4000 students.

As for admissions officers using ConnectEDU to find and recruit students, Powell said that “in practice” an admissions officer has the ability to search for and contact students, but that “a lot of colleges that will say, ‘it’s not working… I’m not getting a response.’” Powell pointed out that, because students can choose to ignore inquiries from schools that reach out to them, this does not necessarily mean the system is not working. However, despite Powell saying that ConnectEDU was charging based on numbers of students recruited by an institution, the company declined to provide any information about how many schools are actively using it and how often they are reaching out to students. When we called 59 schools that ConnectEDU cited in its PR literature as having worked with the company over the past several years, we were unable to find a single example of a school currently using the system to find students as was described in the original article. Yale undergraduate admissions dean, Jeff Brenzel, who was featured in the original article discussing his plans to use StudentRecruit, did not return our follow up calls and e-mails.

In preparing this update, we reached out to ConnectEDU multiple times with follow up questions based on our July interview with Powell. The company suggested that while they are “confident” in the claims the article “makes about ConnectEDU, our approach and capabilities,” the examples of student and college users featured in the article are not “ ‘typical’ of the Company’s work.” Additionally, ConnectEDU suggested that an attempt to measure usage of specific features detailed in Carey’s article, like SuperAPP and StudentRecruit, would be like evaluating “Facebook on the number of ‘pokes’,” and that, over time, “strategies, tactics and naming conventions used have evolved, matured and, in many cases, deemed prior approaches irrelevant.”

Finally, the company has repeatedly claimed it has 2.5 million high school student users, a number Powell confirmed as being a correct “ballpark” estimate during our July interview. When asked specifically whether this was limited to students who had logged into the website and provided their e-mail address and other personal information—in effect, activating the account that their school district or state had created on their behalf—Powell said “these are all registered users that from a college’s perspective would be query-able,” and suggested having his staff walk us through the most recent numbers. When we followed up, ConnectEDU, the company changed its tune, suggesting that it was “contractually prohibited” from providing “much of the information” Powell had suggested he could make available, and refused to provide hard numbers.

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Sebastian Jones and Daniel Luzer collaborated on this article. Jones is a former editor at the Washington Monthly. Luzer is the magazine's web editor.