The college matching industry is failing students. What can be done about it?
Many sites talk about helping students find their “best fit” or their perfect “match”. On their surface, many of these so called matching systems all look the same. They all ultimately result in a list of recommended schools with little explanation as to why those schools are being suggested.
Students are not given a valid enough reason to trust the results, and so most of them don't, rightly so.
An Industry In Its Infancy
Most technologies vary dramatically in their quality. College matching systems are no different. For the incredible amount of matching technology that exists in other industries, it is surprising to see the simplistic technology that is deemed cutting edge in the higher education space.
One of the best examples of effective matching technology today is Google. Most people don’t think of it in that way, but for every search you do, Google matches you with the content that is the best fit for you in a very personalized way.
Higher education matching technology is similar to the world of search before Google entered the scene: it's not very good.
The Scam Artists
In the pre-Google search world, most search engines got away with selling their top recommendation slots to the highest bidder. Even well respected companies like Yahoo bought placements. It was considered the norm for the search technology at the time.
There is no search engine that does this today because no one would use it! Google changed the game by clearly delineating between organic and paid results and in doing raised the quality bar for everyone.
How are many of today's college matching tools any different from primitive search engines? The worst offenders, the real scam artists out there, simply collect information on a student such as their intended major and then direct the student to the for-profit institution willing to pay the most for that student's information.
These types of sites should be shut down. Barring the government stepping in and prosecuting, the most effective method is to make cheap lead-gen sites useless by offering a better alternative. Just as today no one would use a search engine that simply spit out paid results, one day we envision consumers educated enough to distinguish between genuine college match versus sloppy lists or sleazy paid results.
Matching Version 1.0
There are many companies out there that genuinely want to help students and are attempting to give them helpful results. The problem is that the matching technology just isn't very good.
Akin to many first generation search tools, their attempts to match users with their best result is very simplistic. Even the first versions of Google, while better than most of their peers at the time, were incredibly basic. The company went from the single dimensional PageRank algorithm in the the early 2000’s to the 200+ factors used in today’s algorithms.
Search vs. Match
Google's flagship product is referred to as “search”, but at some point Google moved way beyond search and got into the “matching” game. What do I mean by that?
In the earliest Google product, you would type in “xyz keyword” and it would return the top ranked pages for that keyword based on their simple PageRank algorithm. This is search. You said what you thought you wanted, regardless of how poorly formed your search query was, and the product gave you what you asked for.
What Google does now looks completely different. Your "search" results are personalized based on your past history, preferences and success outcomes of prior searches you did. You ask for something by typing in a keyword, and Google matched you to what it was you were actually looking for, not necessarily exactly what you typed in. This is match.
I raise this important distinction because a large percentage of the “matching” tools out there aren’t matching tools at all, they are search tools. They rely on the consumer, the student, being well informed about an extremely complex product, a college education.
The reality is most students are not, and how could they be? Hundreds of choices of majors, thousands of colleges and an equal number of career choices... to make sense of it you either need a PhD in higher education a crystal ball that can predict the future.
Truly optimizing a student’s higher education path is even a daunting path for most guidance counselors. Taking all of the relevant factors into account is impossible for any one person to do. We need to put better tools in the hands of students and those advising them. We don’t need better search tools. We need better matching tools.
The Status Quo
There are several reasons why the college matching space hasn’t evolved further. As with many industries, market leaders benefit from the status quo. These leaders have not yet been faced with a competitive alternative technology that forces them to up their game.
College matching is not a focus for many of these companies. They have grown to dominate some form of unique distribution channel and can typically get away with passing off some form of “me-too” product that only has to be on par with the competition. Matching is not where they differentiate themselves, and as such they do not invest in the innovation that is necessary to disrupt the higher education marketplace.
Changing the Game
The higher education industry is already massively different than it was thirty, twenty or even ten years ago. The stakes are higher, and the consequences of making a bad decision can be devastating for students. This is clear to see in the data: low graduation rates, sky-high debt levels, and high percentages of graduates who aren't able to find a job in their field.
Often ignored from the debate are the students who were never able to pursue a higher education in the first place, traditional, non-traditional or otherwise. Many of these potential students have been blocked out of the market due to the inefficiency and unaffordability of the current system.
If you think about it, there are fewer life choices that are more important than where you go to college. Not just to the individual student, but to society as a whole. The college selection process is essentially how we allocate our most precious asset, our human capital, and in a sense, our future.
Imagine if we could help every student identify the educational path that would propel them into a career that best aligned with both their strengths and passions. Imagine if every working adult not only loved their job, but was also really good at it. This world would be a very different place and a brighter future would be in store for all of us.
The next step for anyone reading this is to demand more. Whether you are a student, parent or someone helping to advise them, don’t settle for anything less than the best fit future. Start demanding the tools need to help you get there. Demand better college matching!
At College Factual, we are working every day to create the next generation of college matching technology. Our mission is to help every student find their future faster by helping them choose the best fit education their money can buy.