Is It Time to Reverse the College-Selection Process?

This is a guest post from NCEA’s corporate partner, Higher Admission, written by Lyle D. Albaugh, Founder.

The current college-selection process makes it too difficult for students to find the best fit for the best price. In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jon Boeckenstedt recently wrote:

The college-selection process has always seemed backward: Colleges encourage students to apply without regard to costs, and delay revealing the final net price (that is, expenses minus grant aid) until March of the senior year, or sometimes later. The process has resulted in confusion, broken hearts, and many college searches that end with unpleasant surprises.

Nearly 50 percent of students fail to graduate within six years. Research shows that poor fit receives much of the blame for this phenomenon. There are seemingly endless possibilities when it comes to college selection, and high school seniors are expected to pick and apply to only a few. Given insufficient knowledge about most schools and an overload of information about others, many students are left confused, searching for information anywhere they can find it. Some even report basing their application decisions on colleges’ Instagram pictures.

The current process benefits only top-tier schools, encouraging colleges to vie for rankings at the expense of students and other schools. This article suggests a forward-facing system that would improve both price transparency and fit. The proposed solution helps both students and a majority of colleges.

A forward-facing selection process would begin with students obtaining individualized lists of schools that have screened them for admission and estimated the final net price. The creation of such a list will necessitate the combination of information technology with a long-standing business practice called term-sheet commitment. At the core of a term-sheet commitment are two sheets of paper, each of which states one party’s essential terms. Final closing, in this case enrollment, depends on verification of each side’s term sheet information.

Because the vast majority of colleges make admissions and merit-aid decisions based on GPA and SAT/ACT scores, students’ term sheets would include their self-reported GPAs, test scores, demographics, expected family contributions (EFCs), and personal statements. Colleges would search a database of students whom they would like to enroll. The colleges’ term sheets would be invitations for students to apply, including information about what makes the college special, offers of merit aid, and links for determining the net cost of attendance. As the consumers of education, students would therefore start their search with offers from competing colleges.

A few examples illustrate how a term sheet approach could flip the selection process.

  1. The director of admissions for a small regional Catholic college knows that many Catholic students live within 150 miles of the college and fit its academic profile. However, most do not apply because they have not heard of the college or assume that it is too expensive. Potential applicants do not realize that merit aid is routinely awarded to such an extent that the private college’s final net price is not much different from those of the public colleges in the region. The admissions director would like better local exposure to high school seniors.
  2. A large state college in South Carolina ranks around 50th among U.S. colleges. It wants to improve its ranking by increasing its average SAT/ACT scores and to bring in more out-of-state tuition. The admissions office knows that out-of-state students can sometimes be convinced to enroll if the college can offer them economic incentives.
  3. A selective New England college wants to improve its geographic, ethnic, and economic diversity while maintaining its rankings and academic standards. The director of admissions knows that there are low-income, high-achieving members of underrepresented groups in the Midwestern and Southwestern United States who are unlikely to enroll at her college. Because she knows that competition for high-achieving and underrepresented minority students can be fierce, she would like a way to encourage them to enroll.

Using the proposed method of admissions, each of the above would analyze data about students nationwide in the following categories: location, GPA, SAT/ACT scores, religion, race, gender, EFC, and parents’ level of education. The searches would provide colleges with a list of students whom they would electronically invite to apply and to whom they would offer merit aid commensurate with academic achievement.

Both students and colleges would benefit from this arrangement. Students would start their college searches with lists of those colleges that had screened them and were prepared to offer merit aid. Colleges would have the opportunity to compete for students who fit their profiles, students who may not otherwise have known about or considered the colleges in question. Furthermore, as colleges and students connect with and select each other, they would take advantage of the massive pool of merit aid available in the United States. Without a college’s term sheet, a student has no way of knowing that the posted price of a private school will be discounted. He or she cannot know that, on average, private-college tuition is discounted by 46 percent, or that public schools are increasingly offering discounts as well.

In short, a technology-driven, business-savvy college-selection process would both improve fit and drive down the costs of post-secondary education. Currently, both colleges and students are missing out on valuable opportunities. It is time to reverse the current selection process.