For many high school seniors, fall means deciding where to apply for college and maybe visiting a guidance counselor. A growing roster of online data crunchers is hoping to help.
The popularity of social-media sites and advancements in the ability of software to analyze the vast amounts of information that are now online give members of the class of 2015 more online tools than ever to help chart their next step, even if finding the right college is an inexact science.
The professional-networking site LinkedIn, for one, recently released its University Finder, which identifies colleges that are popular hiring spots for certain companies.
Parchment.com pools student data to predict an individual’s college-admission prospects. And Admitted.ly pairs students with colleges based on such factors as body piercings and whether applicants go to church.
Those sites are joining the game of college rankings as yet another tool to help high school students pick the right college. That has some education experts excited about the benefits of the new services, but others are rolling their eyes.
“For many families and students, the admissions process is very opaque,” said Matthew Pittinsky, a co-founder of the education technology giant Blackboard who is now the chief executive officer of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Parchment. “And what’s happening now is that [students] are beginning to share data with each other ... to bring transparency” to the process.
But Lloyd Thacker, the executive director of the Education Conservancy, a Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit working to improve the college-admissions process for students, has a different take: Such sites are one more way to profit from senior-year angst and encourage group-think.
“Technology has no inner logic,” he said. “Just because it’s there doesn’t mean we should use it.”
New College Landscape
Picking a college is nothing like it once was. In 1980, there were 3,150 colleges and universities, according to the U.S. Department of Education, and a primary factor for many students was location.
Now, there are close to 4,700 schools across the country, many of which go out of their way to attract out-of-state students because of the tuition money they bring in. Many schools might seem more selective than they really are, and students worried about getting turned down apply to lots of schools as a way to hedge their bets.
Halle Lukasiewicz, 18, said she remembers the day Northwestern University, a private university in Evanston, Ill., and her top choice, began emailing acceptance letters. A chatroom devoted to Northwestern hopefuls on a site called College Confidential was buzzing. High school students were posting whether they had been accepted to the school.
Ms. Lukasiewicz, an occasional user of the site, found she could not look away even though her mother begged her to stop."My heart was racing,” she said.
Now a Northwestern freshman studying radio, television, and film, Ms. Lukasiewicz said she’s not sure the site added much value other than to stress her out. She credits her parents, a good guidance counselor, and a company called AcceptU with helping her find the appropriate school and prepare an attractive application.
“You can’t assess whether someone’s going to get in based on numbers,” she said. “It’s not just luck, but everyone’s different. There are very, very capable students who don’t get into top colleges, and no one really knows why. It just happens. ... But I think it’s extremely important for students not to get fazed by other people on the Internet telling them they’re not going to get in.”
Among the new sites is LinkedIn’s University Finder, which pulls data from its 313 million profiles to find out which schools and degrees translate into jobs at certain companies. For example, if a student wants to study computer science and work at IBM, University Finder shows that a majority of its members who fit those criteria went to North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, or the University of Texas at Austin. Both schools are near IBM research facilities.
Parchment, a company that handles electronic student transcripts, uses crowdsourcing. Students finalizing the college-selection process agree to share with the site such information as their grades, which schools accepted them, and where they chose to go. That information helps to predict another student’s chances of getting into a certain school. The site can suggest other schools and say whether most students preferred one college over another.
Other sites, such as StatFuse, predict admission chances based entirely on data released by 1,200 popular universities. Factors include the average grades and test scores of students accepted.
The New York City-based College Board, which administers the SAT, says it has nearly 2 million unique college searches a month on its site, with the online users examining a host of factors, from grades and test scores to desired location, enrollment size, diversity, and financial-aid needs.
But, while popular, these online search tools have their limitations.
LinkedIn’s University Finder is limited to professionals who bother to set up an account with the networking site and who complete a profile. It also works on the honor system because LinkedIn doesn’t verify a person’s credentials.
Parchment, StatFuse, and other predictor sites can’t take into account an excellent application essay or interview, which can matter more at some schools than others. Parchment includes a confidence rating with its predictions to indicate schools that more heavily weigh such factors in the application process.
Jeremy Goldman, the chairman of the school counseling department at Pikesville High School just outside Baltimore and the president of the Maryland School Counselor Association, told Education Week that while many of the tools students access online serve as helpful resources, they can’t replace what he calls the “human element.”
“College planning, future planning, these aren’t things that an app alone can do,” Mr. Goldman said.
He pointed out that school counselors have a unique and more complete understanding of their students’ potential for college than any software tool because of the rapport they have established with each student.
Sean Logan, the director of college counseling at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., said he understands the attraction of a search engine or online chat room, especially at high schools where there might be one guidance counselor for as many as 1,000 students. But in the end, he said, getting into college can be a frustrating process that isn’t always predictable, even for the best students.
“It’s part science,” he said. “And part art.”
Editorial Intern Sam Atkeson contributed to this article.
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A version of this article appeared in the November 05, 2014 edition of Education Week as Digital Tools Predict College Admissions, Link Employers