Is This eHarmony for College?

Much has been written about how college education can (even will) be changed by the Internet. It may soon be possible for students to customize their postsecondary education by choosing among vast numbers of lectures courses available online.

But what about the college application process? A Boston-based company named ConnectEdu has established a system that puts computers and the Internet to work matching students with colleges. Just as computer matching for people looking for dates probably leads to fewer complete mismatches than random encounters in bars, so too should ConnectEdu help college students avoid choosing schools that are not right for them.

In short, here is how it works.

High school students use ConnectEdu’s web portal to create a portfolio called a SuperApp that shows their academic and extra-curricular accomplishments. They are encouraged to start doing so early rather than waiting until junior year. School guidance counselors can check to see how students are progressing, but even if they don’t (and high school guidance counselors shouldn’t be relied upon), parents can oversee what their children are doing. The portal also prompts students.

ConnectEdu compiles all of the student’s information and validates it for prospective colleges. Most importantly, students will receive back from ConnectEdu a list of the colleges and universities where they have a strong probability of acceptance. The company’s FAQ page says that their service is “all about providing viable, optimal, realistic alternatives to the kids so they’re not discouraged.”

Students choose the colleges (currently, around 1,500 schools that have partnered with ConnectEdu) to which they desire to apply and their SuperApp will be sent to them.

For their part, college admissions officers can evaluate students through the data provided, thus helping them to “enroll more of the students you want,” as the firm’s site promises.

Both students and college officials have more information about each other. In short, more good dates and fewer bad ones.

So far, ConnectEdu has signed up more than 450 colleges and universities and over 2,500 high schools. Schools pay the costs and students can use the services free of charge. Recently, the State of Louisiana signed on, enabling all students there to have access to ConnectEdu’s services. Melanie Amrhein, executive director of the state’s Office of Student Financial Assistance told Reuters that this would make Louisiana students “better able to find college and career opportunities and successfully navigate the critical transitions associated with those opportunities.”

Kevin Carey of Education Sector is very high on ConnectEdu. In this Washington Monthly article, he wrote about a Miami student named Jameel Reid, a 14-year old student who is good in math and is on his school’s college-prep science track. Because Miami has signed up with ConnectEdu, Jameel will be able to avail himself of its services. Carey particularly likes that because he believes it will reduce the “undermatching” problem, meaning that good students from poorer families often apply to only “lower” schools rather than more selective ones they could have gotten into.

In Jameel’s case, for example, ConnectEdu might tell him that he’d have a good chance of acceptance at, say, Renssellaer Polytechnic and that he ought to consider applying there rather than just some of the state schools in Florida. Rensselaer might be the best school for him, and if he would not have otherwise known about it, then Jameel is better off. Value has been added by dovetailing student and college.

There is a problem, however. Just as the ideal man or woman to date is not necessarily the best looking, so is the best-looking college (that is, the most prestigious) not necessarily the ideal one for a student to enroll in. Suppose that ConnectEdu tells Jameel that he would have a good shot of being admitted to Yale. Yale is one of the top-ranked universities in the nation! Obviously he should apply to Yale and enroll if accepted—or so he might think.

But that could be a bad date because prestigious universities often are quite poor when it comes to undergraduate education. Faculty members at such institutions are often so absorbed in their research that their teaching is at best indifferent. As Professor Murray Sperber explained in his book Beer and Circus, professors at research universities often enter into an implicit deal with students he calls the “faculty/student non-aggression pact.” That is to say, the professor won’t make the course hard and will grade easily, but in return expects the students not to expect much of his time.

Students like Jameel might want engaged professors, not ones who regard undergraduates as little more than a nuisance. What Jameel needs is not just a list of schools that might accept him, but knowledge about the academic culture of colleges. It’s quite possible that a non-prestigious institution might be the best one for him. Unfortunately, ConnectEdu doesn’t provide such information.

That’s not a criticism of the company. There is no single information source where a student can find out whether a particular college’s academic culture is not too hard, not too easy, but is just right.  The Intercollegiate Studies Institute has a college guide that students and parents may find helpful, but it takes much more digging than reading any single source to find out whether a school is apt to be a good choice.

Colleges pay experts to put out lots of wonderful-sounding material. Look through any of that promotional stuff and you’d think that every student would be perfectly content and ideally educated. ConnectEdu can help with the application process and suggest some schools the student should consider, but evaluating those schools—getting the “warts and all” portrait—is just as difficult as ever. (The Pope Center’s North Carolina College Finder is a step toward getting those portraits.)

There is another feature of ConnectEdu that catches my interest. It isn’t just for colleges. Employers can also use it, and at least 50 have signed up. Suppose that a company notices Jameel or some other student who shows a strong interest in a field where it needs future workers.

We often read that American business leaders are disappointed with the skills of college graduates. ConnectEdu’s web portal (or something similar) would make it possible for employers to connect with high school students and steer them into education and training programs, but not necessarily college degree programs, that they believe would do the most to help them develop into productive workers. That would diminish the demand for college courses.

Internet matching of students and colleges might lead to better matches between students and colleges, but the more interesting possibility is that it could play a role in deflating the college bubble.