How tech can make selecting the right college easier for students

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2 companies use data to make it easier for selecting the right college to fit student needs

Unlike the discerning “sorting hat” featured in Harry Potter—which takes its time to analyze every budding wizard’s brain to figure out which of the four houses of Hogwarts is right for him or her—the college selection is a pretty arbitrary process.

Most of the time it’s based on geographic location, availability of specific majors, a family attachment, or even a favorite collegiate sports team. Unless students are proactive about seeking help, most receive very little support in this area; middle schoolers get even less attention.

Yet when 17- or 18-year-old high school graduates get to college, they’re supposed to know not only what they want to do for the next four to five years—but also for the rest of their lives.

“There are so many higher education choices for students to pick from, how are they supposed to make the right selection?” asks Lily Matos DeBlieux, superintendent at the Pendergast Elementary School District in Phoenix. “These decisions are difficult enough for adults, let alone for kids. What if the school isn’t a good fit? What if it’s not a good socioeconomic match? What if the culture isn’t what you thought it would be? These are important questions that can’t be answered by taking a college tour.”

No snap decisions

These things can bog down the average student, who at such a young age really doesn’t understand the long-term implications of his or her decision. “This is a lifetime commitment,” said DeBlieux, “and they need tools that can help them make the best possible decisions.”

A couple of companies are taking a stab at the problem and using technology to help students make better choices when selecting a college. In Washington, D.C., vibeffect has developed an algorithm-based, college-decision framework platform that students and families can use to scientifically narrow down their choices. This “unbiased, fact-based lens” costs $96 (per report) and uses a list of 66 different variables associated with the individual and measures those variables against the features of over 1,000 colleges.

vibeffect’s individual variables include things like whether a prospective applicant has held a job, whether he or she likes working independently or on a team, and if the person is apt to ask for help (or not). On the college side, vibeffect factors in a school’s use of innovative teaching techniques, transportation options, and social opportunities. “Through that,” said Elena Maria Cox, co-founder and CEO, “we’re able to create correlations between an individual and the campus features that will help them thrive.”

Planning ahead

Another company making inroads in the college and career-planning arena is Hobsons, the Arlington, Va.-based developer of Naviance. Dan Obregon, vice president of marketing, said the company takes a “holistic approach to college planning that incorporates self-awareness (on the student’s part) and then aligns that with academic plans.” At the Naviance platform’s core is the “College Power Score,” which Obregon said “helps students plan which courses they want to take in middle and high school.”

Then, based on the rigor of that course plan, the platform makes recommendations like, “Hey, it looks like you’re on track to go to a highly-selective college or university,” or, “Based on your course record, it looks like you have a fair shot at a selective college but if you step it up in a couple of key areas to increase your academic rigor you’ll be on a path to a more selective institution, if so desired.”

Along with offering guidance to individual students, the platform also helps facilitate conversations between pupils and school counselors. “With the high student-to-counselor ratio in many schools, these conversations don’t always happen,” said Obregon. “Using technology, we’ve automated that very manual, paper-based process for schools and districts, giving them early/actionable insights that they can use to handle counselors’ overwhelming caseloads.”

Testing the waters

DeBlieux is one superintendent that is in favor of using technology to help facilitate those conversations and get students thinking about their colleges choices at an early age. After learning about vibeffect at a recent Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents conference, she started thinking about how it could benefit the K-8 students at her district’s 12 schools.

“We want to give students the tools they need to make informed decisions and to help them prepare for college and/or a career,” said DeBlieux. “As part of that mission, I’ve been working with one of our district’s councils to introduce vibeffect to our eighth grade students.” In January, she plans to kick off the initiative while also working with her feeder high school to “move this along for the students in our community.”

Cox said vibeffect is working on several new initiatives of its own, all of them centered on helping students “get to the right place and into the right mindset” to succeed in school. “If we can do more of this, and if we can use scientific models to reinforce our efforts—rather than the current, somewhat nebulous system that finds people making this very important decision from a position of weakness,” Cox said, “then we’re achieving our goal.”