The Right College: Students Using Data to Find Their Best Match

Which college a student chooses to attend is a major decision that can affect the rest of their life. What students want to study, what they can afford to pay, and cultural fit can all influence their choice.

Throughout the process, students have all sorts of vague information, but providing them with data specific to them can help them make smarter college decisions. In fact, many students and families are already using specified data through school report cards to help them pick a high school before they even look at colleges.

Even some of North Carolina’s largest school districts, like Union County Public Schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, have started using data resources.

And now, advances in how high schools use college data can help students pick a well-matched college for themselves. As K-12 school report cards become standard practice, college counseling may have to change to meet student expectations for how a specific school will benefit them in the long run.

Some students are indeed lucky enough to access detailed information about their school. One district in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is capitalizing on data to support students as they choose a college. College counseling there includes software that combines student information with data from past graduates and how they performed at a specific college. College counselors can show soon-to-be graduates where students like themselves have succeeded and where they would be more likely to earn a degree.

With that information, students can see which colleges students had trouble in who had similar preparation. Or it can show which colleges are better for them in a particular major than generalized data might show.

Chattanooga isn’t the only place where counselors have taken to using personalized data, but it remains a rare practice. Data analysis can change the tide for students who are at risk of not graduating from college. A good match between students and colleges can help them persist through their studies and graduate. The challenge for schools is to give students relevant data, instead of overwhelming them with too much data.

Schools can also use niche software to provide students with data. Naviance, for example, can provide data on a senior’s college application, acceptance rates, and persistence and graduation data. If a school or district has a higher-level subscription to Naviance, they can access even more personalized data.

An estimate from 2017 stated that roughly 40 percent of high schoolers have access to Naviance, but it is unclear how many of them know about it or use Naviance in applying to college. Software like Naviance can be a simple way for districts to help students take advantage of useful data.

In fact, a 2019 Harvard study on Naviance found that students changed where they applied for college when they see previous students’ admission data.

The data in the study was not personalized, but it did show students their likelihood of getting admitted into colleges based on their GPA and standardized test scores, which helps them see where they stand compared to other students.

In some parts of the country, students already use data, but to choose a high school instead of a college. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires state departments of education to develop school and district report cards to make comparing them easier. The report cards must include demographic, performance, and financial data for each district and state. Families can then use that data to make a well-informed decision about schools while including their personal preferences for less-countable qualities. High-quality report cards bring a host of information to families so they can compare schools side-by-side.

High-quality report cards bring a host of information to families so they can compare schools side-by-side.

Colleges are also taking the initiative to use data to analyze their enrollment trends and students to meet their own goals. In late 2019, The Washington Post found that 44 public and private universities have worked with outside consulting companies to gather data on prospective students. One way they did it was by working with a company like Capture Higher Ed, which places tracking software on their website to gauge student interest. The tracking software tells the college information what pages someone visits and for how long they view it. Colleges then use that data to prioritize recruitment and marketing efforts.

However, those tactics may not help connect soon-to-be graduates to their best-fit college. There are also efforts to use data to benefit students once they are in college, but it’s important to make sure students attend a fitting college in the first place.

Using data isn’t an idea that only policymakers and colleges like, either. The school report cards, for instance, are popular among families. In Ohio, whose report cards are particularly easy to use, a survey found that parents value the report cards and use them to know how their child’s school is performing. It also found that 91 percent of parents were particularly interested in how the school’s students were prepared for post-graduation success.

Parents want to know that their child’s school will prepare them for whatever is next, and while high schools prepare students for college, colleges have the unique responsibility to prepare students for the workforce. As parents and students get used to seeing school report cards and use them to track school performance, they may start to expect it during the college search, too.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Education’s higher education scorecards provide students with information like average starting salaries and average debt payment per month, divided by major, at private and public colleges alike. Though not perfect, that specific data could help a student decide between two schools based on salary and debt—two real consequences of their college choice.

However, one major difference between college data and school report cards is that college data doesn’t take into account student demographics.

In school report cards, students can see how similar students performed at a particular school. College data could be misleading if different groups of students have a wide range of results in, for example, returning to campus for the second year of school. Students need to know the benefits of particular colleges for particular students, as well as the risks.

As the same families who can access data-rich school report cards see their children enter high school in the coming years, the expectation from families may build pressure to improve college-level scorecards. That could make data analysis the key to helping students succeed in college.

Abigail Burrola is an education policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute in St. Louis, Missouri, and graduated from Azusa Pacific University with a degree in political science.