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.
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.