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What if Google ran the college application process?

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If you have ever been through the college admissions process, or your child has, or, if anybody you have ever known has been remotely connected to it, then you know how crazy it is. In this post, Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president for enrollment management and marketing at DePaul University in Chicago writes about the process and how it could/should be changed in ways you probably haven’t considered.

By Jon Boeckenstedt

I’m very lucky.  You’re not.

When my son was applying to college, I could call on my 30 years of experience in college admissions to help smooth out the bumps high school seniors and their parents encounter.  I personally knew the chief enrollment officer at each of the colleges my son was considering; for most, I even had a cell phone number.  Before he ever filled out an application, often before he ever visited campus, I had a very good sense of what his chances for admission were, and what it was likely to cost us when he found the one place that was the best match for him.

I had easy access to data and information —some publicly available although often through cryptic sources, and some via my informal discussions with colleagues in the industry—that assured me the colleges and universities he was considering were reputable, academically rigorous, with high graduation rates, and were diverse enough to meet his expectations. I’ll have the same advantages when my daughter applies to college next year.

I’ve long thought you should have information like that, too, with the notable exception of the cell phone numbers of admissions directors.  But it’s very unlikely you will any time soon: An admissions and financial aid process that is less transparent than it could be benefits almost everyone: Colleges and their administrators, high school and independent counselors, magazines who print ratings, websites that offer advice, and the hundreds of companies that sell consulting services to admissions officers who want to generate more applications or increase enrollment.

Everyone, of course, except the students many think the process should serve.   It’s not that those admissions directors and others who create the process are evil, of course; it’s just that there is no real incentive to change a system that worked reasonably well for the time in which it was created. But in 2014 we still require 17 year olds to enter into a complex exercise in game theory they’re playing for the first time, and we expect them to be both proficient and omniscient about the game on their first try even as the stakes for them are rising, at least in their perception.  What’s worse is that the game is slightly different at every college they’re considering.

Imagine taking a driving test without ever having sat behind the wheel of a car, or making a meal for your future in-laws without ever having set foot in a kitchen, and you might understand the reason students are stressed about the application process. It doesn’t have to be this way, and it’s very doubtful that we’d create this wholly decentralized system if we were starting from scratch. Some might argue that our nation’s founders chose to leave education to the states; the ramifications of that decentralization, and the resultant challenges of it are writ large when it comes to admissions.

But now may be the perfect time for dramatic change in college admissions: Shrinking populations of high school graduates; falling family incomes; and less certainty about the value of a college degree. Even colleges are beginning to wonder if the long, hard-fought race for artificial measures of prestige and its trappings have been worth it.  Add to this the ways in which social media have taken control of messaging out of the hands of organizations and into the hands of people, and the time seems ripe.

Several years ago I began thinking about a centralized college admissions process, perhaps similar to the UCAS System in Great Britain, where applications and documents are centrally managed.  Centralized data collection and reporting would mean you’d be able to trust the information you read, and it could also help with the process of choosing which colleges to apply to. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that any system set up by the colleges and universities is likely to be framed around improving existing processes, rather than creating a new one with students at the center.

Let’s start from scratch: What if we allowed Google to manage the college application process? What if you discovered the best college for you by relying on Yelp-like reviews written by actual students? What if better estimates of net costs and admissions decisions were available from your desktop? In short, what if admissions—a process already social in the old sense of the word—became, well, social?

The spread of ubiquitous information has transformed much of what we do today: You now walk into the auto dealer knowing how much he pays for the car you want; your plans for dinner can evolve quickly based on your budget and preferences and the street corner you’re standing on; and when you want to fly to Chicago to visit my campus, you can compare all your options and prices in seconds.

But if you’re applying to college, things haven’t changed much: You try to find the best college, but it’s almost certain you’re overlooking several that have just what you want.  The colleges looking for students just like you are probably not able to find you among the 3,000,000 other high school graduates in the country each year (and millions more from outside the US.)  You may have no idea of your chances for admission; no sense of what that first year (let alone all four) will cost you; no concept of whether the students at the college are happy with their choice to enroll there; no evaluation of the rigor of the major you’re thinking about; and no idea what happens to the graduates of that institution once they leave.  Are they employed? In graduate school? How much student loan debt do they carry?

Currently, many people believe their only source of such information is from third-parties: Word of mouth, online discussion boards, magazines and newspapers that rank colleges, or independent counselors.  None of them is perfect, and often, they seem to be in conflict with one another. If you know higher education, you can find as much bad information as good on many of these sites.  Mere innuendo and hearsay often passes for wisdom, further pointing out the thirst for good information.

Google is brilliant at measuring and tracking people through a life-cycle of a process, and college affects your whole life: If Google helped us manage it, students could start assembling their application at any time, building online portfolios of academic and personal accomplishments for colleges to evaluate: The piece of music you wrote in Google Music; the paper you’re most proud of in Google Documents; video of your tennis skills on YouTube. Your information could be transferred seamlessly when you decide to apply; your interactions and reminders and deadlines would be there for you in one place. In the same way that algorithms take words and return them as search results, you could load your profile and get possible college matches, or your chances for admission, or your prospects for financial aid. Colleges looking to enroll or reward students just like you could find you, if you wanted them to.

Colleges would benefit too, from long-term connections to students future, past and present: How many of your students who transfer out, for instance, graduate somewhere else? When your graduates walk across stage, where do they go and what do they do? How do they reflect your mission of research or service or political involvement?  What can you learn in real-time from what your students are saying about you? And how can students interested in your college learn about this?

And the results of these transactions can be displayed for anyone to look at (while protecting your confidential information, of course): Rather than a pre-determined assumption about what’s important to most people, you get a list of suggestions based on what you say is important to you.

None of this means your life as a prospective student will get perfect: Many factors go into admissions decisions, even at the less-selective institutions where the vast majority of college students enroll, and some part of these are not measurable in the ways we like to think about measuring: There is no standardized assessment for leadership, or musical talent; no 1-to-10 scale to reward students who have overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, all of which can influence an admissions decision.  Almost every university seeks a class assembled from many different students, all interesting and worthy in their own way; and anyone who has known a few students with perfect test scores and GPAs knows you wouldn’t want a classroom full of them.

But many of the things that colleges are measured on, or boast about—student test scores, grade point averages, diversity (including geographic, ethnic, socioeconomic, gender, and academic program), the amount of financial aid awarded, to name a few—can and should be made available to anyone who wants to look at them in fairly granular detail.  And this might—just might—lead to better matches, better decisions, and higher graduation rates.  We have a long way to go to meet the Presidents’ Goal of 55% of adults with a post high-school credential, but changing the process could be an important first step.

Our admissions process still runs, at its core, on a system that was never ideal, but which was at least adequate 50 years ago; and it still relies on a process that’s mostly protected from public scrutiny, even though private and public institutions collect billions of dollars in federal and state funds each year.

Frankly, of the two biggest obstacles in changing the admissions process, the smaller is the technology.  The biggest change would be encouraging cultural adaptation of a process that loosens tight university control in the interest of making the higher education industry better from top-to-bottom.  It’s both likely and unfortunate that the first universities to throw off the traditional way of doing admissions are probably going to bear the brunt of being on the leading edge of cultural change.

I think it’s time things changed, but they won’t unless the people most affected demand they do.  It’s your move.

Or maybe Google’s.