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Big Data and its Impact on College Choices

I recently had a discussion with a rising high school senior who has begun her college search and selection process. She is a high academic achiever, who has her sights set on many top tier colleges and universities. Through ever increasing access to college application data, she has become quite conscious of the reality that she will be competing directly with her peers at her own high school. This raises some valid questions in terms of how access to data affects students’ college selection decisions.

There are more and more ways for students to access data about colleges as they gear up to decide on what colleges to consider and where to apply. This data can impact their decisions. Publicly available data about college rank, admit rates, and total number of applicants is accessible on college websites, government sponsored websites and through college search tools, of which their are dozens. However, there are also “internal” sets of data accessible to students through platforms like Naviance, which is in use at thousands of high schools. Originally designed as a tool for counselors to help students search for colleges and electronically submit transcripts and test scores to colleges, Naviance has become a treasure trove of data sets that allow students to quickly see how they stack up against their peers at their own high school.

Beyond college search tools, Naviance provides access to students and counselors of the total number of applications tied to a specific school in a given year, as well as how many of those students were accepted. Below that information is a scattergram, one of Naviance’s most popular tools. It is a coordinate graph of the GPA and SAT scores of all the students who have applied to specific schools in the last three years, as well as whether they were accepted, wait listed, or denied. At first glance, it seems to be a great way for students to see the stats and weigh their chances of getting accepted at their dream school. The information can help confirm a decision to apply to certain schools, as it shows where a student falls well inside of the scattergram’s range of “green check marks” for those schools. Yet, a byproduct of this knowledge is that it can create doubt of the likelihood of being admitted to certain colleges. For example, if the number of applicants from a student’s very own school may be on the rise each year, while the number accepted remains stagnant, especially when the acceptances shown on those scattergrams do not seem to follow any specific pattern.

College admissions offices work hard to create diverse student enrollments, and this includes diversity as it relates to geographic location. Typically, colleges only accept so many students from a particular high school (or region) regardless of qualifications, resulting in the stagnant number of acceptances. This yearly data is readily available for students at schools who use Naviance. A student who might normally pursue the college of their dreams may now be reluctant, knowing they are much less likely to be considered than if their peers didn’t apply in droves. In the worst case, if a highly qualified student sees that the number of applications from their school is growing while the number of acceptances stay the same, they may actually opt out of trying to compete directly with their peers by deciding to not apply to that college. This “inside peek” which is accessible to students within a specific high school is impacting college admissions.

There is another byproduct of student access to this data set. The analysis of the GPAs and SATs can bring a sense of stress or disappointment to a student. Being outside of the range of “green check marks” can discourage students from applying to their dream schools because they may believe themselves not academically qualified. Even when a student is in the range, not being able to find a pattern in the scattergram can cause confusion and raise doubts in the student’s mind. It could result in the student giving up on their dream school. 

The reality of it is, the scattergram does not take into account any other factors except for grades and scores, which includes all the intangibles, such as extracurriculars, college interviews, and intended major(s). These are all invisible to the students when viewing the data. But it’s exactly these intangibles that may have resulted in an acceptance of one student over another, even if those students look similar on a scattergram.

The college search and selection process is supposed to be based on what a student wants from a college, not driven by their chances of getting in. But in this day and age, the reality is that access to data is impacting decisions, sometimes in a negative way. A US News rank determines the “worth” of a college, and the GPA and SAT can be used to determine if a student is qualified for a specific college or university. Yet in reality, the worth of a college is more than its rank, a student is more than their grades and test scores, and the acceptance rate should not be a factor for whether a student applies or not. If a student wants to apply to a top school, then, parents and educators, encourage it. With these top colleges, there’s never a guarantee for acceptance; however, there’s also never a guarantee for rejection.

Access to data can be helpful. But it can also be detrimental and cause paralysis in decision making. This growing trend of data affecting a student’s college application decisions applies not just to top colleges; it applies to every college. Top colleges inevitably will fill their seats, but for most colleges, this discouragement resulting from the data can result in a decrease in the number of applicants and thus also a decrease in enrollment. 

Connecting with students who have expressed interest in a college of their choice is key; it can create a personal experience that can overcome a student’s doubt, encouraging them to apply, even in the age of “big data”. Click here to learn more about College Interactive and how our personalized and mobile app focused solution can help you directly get connected with students who are demonstrating interest in your school.