Find Your Match: Data Companies Transform College Applications

What if narrowing down your list of potential colleges was as simple as entering a few basic facts about yourself into a computer? Plug in your GPA, your SAT score, your ethnicity and a few extracurricular activities, and some websites say they can find your ideal match – including, in some cases, schools that are most likely to accept you.

Colleges for years have used predictive analytics to target admission offers to students they think will be most likely to enroll and succeed at their schools. And now, some data companies want to give students the same opportunity: Help them find colleges that best fit their desires and have a history of admitting students like them. 

"Even four years ago, these tools didn't really exist where you could go and find your statistical odds of being accepted to this school," says Matt Pittinsky, co-founder of education technology giant Blackboard and chief executive officer of Parchment, a technology company that allows students to electronically send transcripts and find college matches. "It is to a certain extent bringing symmetry to the tools universities have when recruiting students, relative to the tools students have when discovering universities." 

Pittinsky describes technological admissions tools in three buckets: those that help students manage the process and keep track of deadlines, those that help students discover and match up with certain schools and those that bring transparency to the admissions process, college costs and outcomes. 

The National Association for College Admission Counseling has said in its annual report on the state of college admissions that students are applying to more schools to lessen uncertainty in the admission process. That can be costly for students, give more work to admissions officials and make selective universities appear even pickier. 

Using a college matching tool, some might think, could deter students from applying to a school where they have a reportedly low chance of admission or even push them away from certain schools. But Pittinsky says that isn't the case.

"The concern that it somehow works to inhibit applications, we don’t see that in our data. Instead what we see is it helps students build a more balanced list," Pittinsky says. "It helps them understand the old advice of a safety, stretch and target. It brings some additional insight into how you bucket those three."

In April, Parchment launched its College Match tool – Pittinsky describes it as a sort of Netflix for college – which uses an algorithm based on students' GPA, SAT scores, state, race and other information to suggest schools they might be interested in. Students can also see their admissions probabilities for individual schools, or the likelihood that they'll be admitted to at least one school on their list. But unlike similar characteristics colleges post about admitted students, Parchment's data is student-reported; prospective students can see which schools similar students were interested in, where they applied and where they were accepted.

But these services do have their limits. Colleges consider many other factors during the admissions process, such as essays, extracurricular activities and in some cases, family ties to the university. 

"Teaching students to imagine that their chances of admission and graduation hinges on three factors is a poor substitute for actual conversation and thought, and comes across as an effort to oversimplify the conversation about choosing a college, getting in and being successful there," says Jim Rawlins, director of admissions at the University of Oregon. "If it helps a few more students get the confidence to seek higher education versus not seeking it, I’m thrilled. But that needn’t come at the expense of helping them consider their options from a lot of different perspectives."

But advocates of using predictive analytics in the college search say it's not an end-all-be-all, but rather a way for students to come across schools that could be a good fit and they might not have considered otherwise. 

"The whole goal of our admissions tools are to expand people’s awareness of higher education options and to bring greater confidence to users that they can apply to a reasonable number of institutions and have a very good chance of being accepted to at least one institution on their list," Pittinsky says. "We're not building Parchment to be the one site that rules them all. I do believe there are different sites that have different strengths."

Some companies offering admissions tools – such as LinkedIn or Admittedly, an online college advisory company – use other information to match students to certain schools or programs. LinkedIn's University Finder asks users to provide their preferred field of study, companies they'd like to work for and where they would like to live, for example, to show users the schools "most attended by LinkedIn members already working in the career selected," wrote Christina Allen, director of product management, in a blog post.

Admittedly's tool works more like the OkCupid of the college world. Students answer questions about their preferences for school location, class size, weather and student activities before they're matched with certain schools.

The College Board's search tool filters institutions by factors such as selectivity, majors, housing, location, diversity and type of school. Another search tool developed by The Noble Network of Charter Schools – a charter school company in Chicago – focuses on low-income students who might not always consider applying to schools out of state. In addition to admissions probabilities, the tool provides students with the six-year graduation rates for African-American and Hispanic students, as well as information on financial aid.

Lee Furbeck, director of undergraduate admissions at Cleveland State University, says using tools to help match students to colleges could also be a help to high school counselors, who in many cases are overloaded with work and don't always have time to meet with students. Counselors could use the results of different admissions tools as a conversation-starter, Furbeck says. 

"A nything that can help the student take a look at some schools they wouldn't have otherwise considered, I think that’s a good thing. It might get you to consider something you haven’t considered," Furbeck says. "W e do see many students that come from a school where maybe the counselor ... is busy with other issues besides helping students get into college, unfortunately."