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

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.

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.


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.


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.

The second stage of technology adoption involves people outside of the current system rethinking the logic of the process from the ground up, given the full possibilities of what technology can do. This tends to upset existing power structures and put people out of comfortable jobs, but it's inevitable, and the buyers and sellers in the market are ultimately better off. We may lament the loss of our friendly neighborhood travel agent and CD stores for a little while, but middlemen are rarely missed for long.

This is where college admissions needs to go. One analogue is marriage--millions of people trying to make a complicated, life-altering decision based on limited up-front information. As Nick Paumgarten described in The New Yorker earlier this year, online dating services like eHarmony and Match.com have compiled vast databases that can be mined for insight into what kind of matches are likely to create fruitful long-term relationships--and which are not. In the same way, Amazon makes book recommendations and iTunes Genius auto-compiles the perfect playlist.

These techniques applied to higher education would be a boon for bewildered students and parents trying to make heads and tails of glossy brochures, slick Websites, and aggressive marketing claims. First-generation college students, who by definition can't rely on their parents' experience to guide them, are most in need. They're not immersed in a college-going culture where market information seeps in by osmosis. Many of their high schools have 500 students for every guidance counselor. If they make the wrong choice, they have few second chances.

In a better-functioning higher-education market, it will be harder for local colleges to persist in mediocrity by serving a captured population. Students who used to default to the local community college might be willing to drive an extra 20 minutes to a competitor if they know the education they receive will be much better. Or, if they have only one nearby option, they could choose with more confidence online. Many Web-based colleges offer high-quality programs; it's just hard to separate them from purveyors of scams.

Colleges, meanwhile, will have more opportunities to specialize. As technology brings buyers and sellers together at the speed of light for almost zero marginal cost, they can focus on what they're best at doing, and market themselves to students who are most likely to benefit in return. One can imagine LendingTree-style scenarios where colleges compete for students on quality and price, trying out imaginative pricing structures and adjusting on the fly.


This kind of specialization points toward an even more radical higher-education future, one where the basic unit of consumer choice is not the institution but the course. Students currently pick colleges based on a general sense of quality, and trust the college to apply it throughout its programs. As everyone who's been to college knows, even the best colleges have terrible courses, and vice versa. Since students have a hard time knowing which is which ahead of time, there's not much they can do to protect themselves, and in any case they can't simply pick and choose among the best courses from Michigan, Yale, Berkeley, and Vanderbilt--yet.

But as more courses, many free, migrate to the Internet, this will become less true. There are tends of thousands of free courses on iTunes U today, and an entire burgeoning movement is devoted to building Open Educational Resources. The Genius algorithms could be used to generate course "playlists"--that is, customized curricula--just as well as parsing the latest indie rock. Online higher education is growing much faster than the sector as a whole. As college continues to move online, so too will the methods by which people make choices about how they learn.

Traditional students will probably be least affected by all of this. Harvard will always be Harvard. But for everyone else, a vigorous, technology-driven higher education marketplace can't come soon enough.


Come back to our special report tomorrow, when we'll talk to Craig Powell, the founder of ConnectEDU, which has been described as an "eHarmony" for high-school and college placement.