For many high school seniors, fall means deciding where to apply for college and maybe visiting a guidance counselor. Data crunchers hope to help.
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The popularity of social media sites and advancements in the ability to analyze the vast amounts of data we put online give members of the class of 2015 more tools than ever to help chart their next step, even if finding the right college is an inexact science.
The professional networking site LinkedIn has just come out with its "University Finder," which identifies which colleges are popular with which companies. Parchment.com pools student data to predict an individual's college admission prospects. There's even a dating service-like site for higher education: Admitted.ly pairs students with colleges based on such as factors as body piercings and whether applicants go to church.
These sites are joining the game of college rankings, which has some education experts excited and other rolling their eyes.
"For many families and students, the admissions process is very opaque," said Matthew Pittinsky, co-founder of the education technology giant Blackboard and chief executive officer of Parchment. "And what's happing now is that they (students) are beginning to share data with each other ... to bring transparency" to the process.
Lloyd Thacker, head of the Education Conservancy and a critic of college rankings, has another take: These sites are one more way to profit from senior-year angst and encourage group-think.
"Technology has no inner logic," he said. "Just because it's there, doesn't mean we should use it."
Picking a college is nothing like it once was. In 1980, there were 3,150 colleges and universities, according to the Department of Education, and a primary factor for many students was location.
Now, there are close to 4,700 schools, many of which go out of their way to attract out-of-state students because of the money they bring. Many schools might seem more selective than they really are, and students worried about getting turned down apply to lots of schools as a way to hedge their bets.
Halle Lukasiewicz, 18, said she remembers the day Northwestern University, a private research university in Illinois and her top choice, began emailing acceptance letters. A chatroom devoted to Northwestern hopefuls on a site called "College Confidential" was buzzing. Kids were posting their grades and test scores and whether they had gotten in.
Lukasiewicz, an occasional lurker on the site, found she could not look away even though her mom begged her to stop.
"My heart was racing," she said.
Finally, an email slid across her phone: accepted. Now a Northwestern freshman studying radio, television and film, Lukasiewicz said she's not sure the site added much value other than to stress her out. She credits her parents, a good guidance counselor and a company called "AcceptU" with helping her find the appropriate school and prepare an attractive application.
"You can't assess whether someone's going to get in based on numbers," she said. "It's not just luck, but everyone's different. There are very, very capable students who don't get into top colleges, and no one really knows why. It just happens ... But I think it's extremely important for students not to get fazed by other people on the Internet telling them they're not going to get in."
Among the new sites is LinkedIn's "University Finder," which pulls data from its 313 million profiles to find out which schools and degrees translate into jobs at certain companies. For example, if you want to study computer science and work at a company like IBM someday, LinkedIn says the majority of its members who fit that criteria went to North Carolina State or the University of Texas at Austin, Both are near IBM research facilities.
Parchment, a company that handles electronic student transcripts, uses a technique called "crowdsourcing." Students finalizing the college selection process agree to share with the site such information as their grades, which schools accepted them and where they chose to go. That information helps to predict another student's chances of getting in to a certain school. The site can suggest other schools and say whether most students preferred one college over another.
Other sites, such as StatFuse, predict admission chances based entirely on data released by 1,200 popular universities. Factors include average grades and test scores of student accepted.
The College Board, the same outfit that runs the SAT exam, says it runs nearly 2 million unique searches a month on its site, which takes into account grades and test scores but also can consider desired location, size, diversity and financial aid needs.
While popular, these online search tools have their limitations.
LinkedIn's University Finder is limited to professionals who bother to set up an account with the networking site and who complete a profile. It also works on the honor system because LinkedIn doesn't verify a person's credentials.
Parchment, StatFuse and other predictor sites can't take into account a great application essay or interview, which can matter more at some schools than others. Parchment includes a confidence rating with its predictions to indicate schools that more heavily weigh these factors in the application process.
Sean Logan, director of college counseling at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, says he understands the attraction of a search engine or online chat room, especially at high schools where there might be one guidance counselor for as many as 1,000 students. But in the end, he said, getting into college can be a frustrating process that isn't always predictable, even for the best students.
"It's part science," he said. "And part art."
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