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College Admissions and the Jobs of Tomorrow

The steady drumbeat for greater efficiency and modernization in higher education continues. A piece in the Washington Monthly discusses the problems in the college admissions process, and provides some hope for the future:

But there’s another culprit at work: the college admissions process itself. If you want to buy shares of stock, bid on antiques, search for a job, or look for Mr. Right in 2011, you will likely go to a marketplace driven by the electronic exchange of information. There will be quick, flexible transactions, broad access to buyers and sellers, and powerful algorithms that efficiently match supply and demand. If you are a student looking for a college or a college looking for a student, by contrast, you’re stuck with an archaic, over-complicated, under-managed system that still relies on things like bus trips to airport convention centers and the physical transmission of pieces of paper. That’s why under-matching is so pervasive. The higher education market only works for students who have the resources to overcome its terrible inefficiency. Everyone else is out of luck.

As a result, the odds appear to be against Jameel, who attends a 1,600-student public high school where the large majority of children qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program and the staff of three guidance counselors was cut to two last year. Determination can take you only so far if there’s no one to help you find your way.

But Jameel’s local school system has made one recent move that might work significantly in his favor. A few days after returning from the college fair, Jameel logged on to a new Web site that is the result of a contract between the Miami-Dade County school system and a Boston-based company called ConnectEDU. The site offered Jameel loads of information about different colleges and universities, along with strategies for filling out college applications and getting scholarships and financial aid. It was also a vessel for information about Jameel himself—his grades, courses, and activities, along with short animated quizzes designed to identify his strengths and goals. There were checklists and schedules and friendly reminders, all tailored to the personal aspirations the site had gleaned from Jameel, all focused on identifying the colleges that might meet them.

Indeed. It is bad enough that prospective students have to deal with the high costs and misplaced academic priorities of many colleges; these problems are exacerbated by a labyrinthine and outmoded admissions process. As with many aspects of higher education, harnessing new technologies may help to provide a solution.

As I discussed in an earlier post, the internet is a powerful tool for value-added intermediation — where experts assist individuals in navigating a complex and poorly-understood field of options. Sites such as Orbitz and Priceline serve this function for airline travel, tools such as those discussed above may soon play the same role for college admissions.

Hint for people looking for the jobs of tomorrow: even with better software and online tools, many parents and students are intimidated and confused by the college admission process.  At the high end, many wealthy families hire private coaches and counselors to make sure their little darlings get into the most prestigious possible school.  Entrepreneurs who have a base of knowledge about the admissions process or go to the trouble of developing it could provide valuable services at an affordable price for regular families.

Most high school guidance counselors are overworked, most families are under informed and uneasy about the college admissions process — and most students are overwhelmed and confused.  This is more than a social problem; it is a business opportunity — one of many ways that smart and creative entrepreneurs can build careers for themselves while improving the quality of American life and making our society work better for all.

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