Our Best Weapon Against the College Crisis: A Match.com for Higher Ed

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Half of the country's 18-year-olds don't go on to college, and half of those who enroll ultimately drop out. We need to a better way to show students where they can succeed. If the college crisis is a matching crisis, the solutions might be in matching technology to point students to the school that fits them best. For millions of Americans, a tech-driven higher education marketplace can't come soon enough.

 

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Newspapers and magazines like to pick on excitable parents over-prepping their children for college. This would be a wonderful problem for the rest of the country to have.

It's an article of faith among the striving classes that college admissions has become a Thunderdome-style tournament from which a chosen few emerge to enjoy lives of guaranteed privilege. Media outlets make a lot money stoking the flames of anxiety among the college-bound. A devoted New York Times reader could be forgiven for thinking the typical American teenager spends his or her seventeenth year doing nothing but studying for AP tests and fretting about impressing the personal-essay readers at Swarthmore and Brown.

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In truth, the college admissions frenzy is limited to a relative handful of privileged students, as I wrote in a story for the Washington Monthly's annual college issue. This is a problem. As a nation, we need far more students to be caught up in the college admissions market--but in a completely different way.

The numbers are plain: among the 3.2 million students who started college for the first time in 2009, only 9.3 percent enrolled at an institution that admits less than half of those who apply. Only 2.8 percent went to a school with an admission rate below one-third. While a few parents are angling their toddlers toward preschools with a pipeline to Yale, most students default to colleges that are public, affordable, close to home, and admit at least 90 percent of applicants. A significant number are parents themselves--nontraditional students with families and jobs--are a fast-growing segment of the college population.

Only 3% of the 3 million students who started college in 2009 went to a school with an admissions rate below one-third.

Unfortunately, the closest, cheapest college is often a bad choice. In 2009, more than 320 four-year colleges and universities reported six-year graduation rates below 30 percent. At community colleges, the average three-year graduation rate is 16 percent. While much ink is spilled denouncing terrible K-12 schools, pundits and politicians seem less willing to admit that a not-insignificant number of public colleges also suffer from the same problems of incompetence, mediocrity, and inadequate funding. Add the more recent phenomenon of some (although by no means all) for-profit colleges loading up students with debt by selling overpriced online degrees, and it's clear that all students need help choosing the right college, not just the privileged few.

Indeed, the stakes are arguably much higher for a first-generation student picking among open-access institutions of wildly varying quality than for a wealthy suburban kid whose worst-case scenario is an expensive private school. Without a better-functioning higher market, we'll continue to lose ground to foreign competitors that have eclipsed America in producing college graduates in recent years.

ADMISSIONOMICS 101

Using the current college-admissions process will not work. Parents holding down two jobs (if they're lucky enough to have them) can't take a week to drive their kid around New England on a bunch of campus visits. Test prep, essay coaches, and admissions consultants can cost thousands of dollars or more. Teenagers, meanwhile, are apt to assemble lists of favored colleges through highly non-scientific methods involving innuendo, the results of televised football games, and what their friend's older brother's girlfriend said that one time at the mall.

The existing admissions system is also remarkably archaic. To a large extent, it still involves students submitting pieces of paper (or electronic copies of pieces of paper) containing information about grades, test scores, high-school profiles, essays, and personal recommendations. Colleges then apply a few crude filters, like a minimum SAT threshold or whether the student's parents are rich, and consider the remaining applicants via a "holistic" process of decision-by-committee. Because the information isn't stored in a database, it's hard to perform post hoc analyses to see if the "yea" and "nay" decisions were good ones. The fact that most students drop out of or transfer from the first college they choose suggests that many are not.

At community colleges, the average three-year graduation rate is 16 percent.

A MATCH.COM FOR COLLEGE ADMISSIONS

The solution lies with information technology. At the moment, college admissions is stuck in the well-recognized first stage of technology adoption, where the same people keep doing the same things in the same ways, but faster and for less money. So college applications and transcripts are increasingly sent electronically instead of via the U.S Postal Service, and read by admissions officers on laptop computers instead of paper files. But there are still applications and transcripts, and decisions are still made by people sitting around a table.

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Kevin Carey is the policy director of Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington, D.C. 

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