Capstone College and Career Advising

Are admissions applications outdated and inefficient?

May 11th, 2015 by

 April 27 

Most high-school seniors planning to enroll in college this fall already have made up their minds about where they are going. But for many others, this is the final week to make a choice: May 1 is Decision Day, when deposits are due to secure a spot in the next freshman class.

Picking a college is an emotional decision, and even after months or even years of courting each other, students and colleges many times make a bad match. One-third of students transfer between institutions at least once before they graduate, and half of students who enroll in college never get a degree at all.

[Think your college search is almost over? Think again. For many, a transfer awaits.]

Despite the stakes involved, the college admissions process remains incredibly inefficient, and in many ways, ineffective. Colleges annually buy lists from testing companies that have the names of hundreds of thousands of students who scored above a certain threshold on the SAT or the ACT, and then the colleges start marketing to them. If anything has changed, it is how early that marketing begins.

Nearly half of the nation’s colleges start sending materials to prospective students during their sophomore year. Almost 10 percent begin contacting students in eighth grade or earlier, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Recruiting is a time-consuming and difficult process. And for students and their families, the problem is that colleges know more about them — through the data provided on applications and transcripts — than students know about the school where they might spend the next four years and spend upward of $200,000 on a degree.

Much of the angst around college admissions is driven by a series of dates on a calendar. It starts in the fall with early-decision deadlines and continues through the spring with admissions letters, financial-aid packages, and finally culminating with Decision Day on May 1.

The application itself is just one more event on this calendar. It’s an indication for schools that a particular student is interested and a vehicle to deliver critical information, such as high-school grades, test scores, and recommendations. But the ease of online applications in recent years has led students to apply to more colleges than ever before, even if they have no chance of getting in or little interest in attending if they do.

In many ways, applications are less useful to colleges now than they were in the pre-Internet days, and with advances in technology perhaps the time has come to rethink if the application is needed at all.

In a compelling new book about higher education, The End of College, its author, Kevin Carey, lays out a future where admission to a college is based on the massive amounts of data and information already collected on students from an early age rather than a snapshot made in one moment in time for an application deadline.

“Instead of waiting for applications to arrive colleges will be able to conduct extensive searches of data that students and parents choose to make available,” writes Carey, who directs the education policy program at the New America Foundation.

Under such a scenario, admissions would become something more akin to how employers now search LinkedIn and other online databases to recruit talent to their organizations rather than wait for an application to arrive in response to a job advertisement. LinkedIn already has lowered the minimum age to join the professional network to 14, partly in an effort to persuade more students in middle school and high school to begin building their profiles. As more students do, the day might not be that far away when a LinkedIn profile becomes the foundation for a college application or the place where admissions officers search for their next class of freshmen.

And it’s not just traditional high school courses and activities that will provide the breadcrumbs of data that colleges would scour. They might also search for prospective students among students who take free massive open online courses, or MOOCs. The open courses could enable colleges and universities to discover talented students participating in classes equivalent to the ones offered on their campuses, and completing assignments made by their professors. It’s an easier and cheaper way to find that diamond-in-the-rough student, and it’s a safer bet that these students ultimately will succeed, given they’re already doing the work.

Sound far fetched? Consider last week’s announcement from Arizona State University and edX to build something called the Global Freshman Academy. It plans to offer a dozen MOOCs free of charge and allow students to pay and apply for credit, if they so choose, only after they successfully complete the class. The approach turns the current admissions system on its head.

[Arizona State University to offer freshman year online for credit.]

Instead of students applying to college, getting accepted, paying a lot of money in tuition, and only then taking classes that they might end up failing, students get to try out college first with very little risk. (Full disclosure: I’m a part-time professor of practice at Arizona State University).

Such approaches, whether building online profiles or taking MOOCs, of course, could further the divide that already exists in college admissions between wealthy and poor students. But the pathway to college through MOOCs also could give low-income and first-generation students the needed confidence to know they can succeed at a top college rather than attending a less-selective college, as they often do now and end up dropping out.

If a Web site such as LinkedIn can help better connect talented workers with employers or Match.com can help two people fall in love based on a short questionnaire, we should be able to design a better method for a much higher stakes and time-consuming decision: matching students with colleges.