For the past twenty-four hours, I have been forced to concentrate on something other than social media...until, that is, social media reared its ugly head as a possible solution to an equally ugly conundrum.
My son is a junior in high school in New Jersey, fortunate enough to attend a private school that has an entire staff of six people, many of them former college admissions officers, to help parents and students manage the months-long anxiety of college admissions. Yesterday we were given a taste of how truly awful the process has become: our year will have the highest number of college applicants ever, perfect scores and grades are a guarantee of nothing when it comes to admission at the nation's best colleges, take a fresh look at your local community college, etc. etc; nothing new for anyone who reads a newspaper.
But what is happening on the "customer" side of this equation is just as bad. Students at my son's school apply to as many as 20 schools, knowing that they will only be interested in one or two at the most. They have to engage in all kinds of strategies: early admission, early decision and early action are words that you have to learn and understand the nuances of, and they do not spell relief. They hire expensive consultants to help them package themselves, they visit dozens of schools, and if they are athletes they have to withstand some pressure to attend the school that needs just their brand of lacrosse goalie.
I realize that these problems are, in many respects, high class problems to have. But look at the process as a business problem, please. Multiply the numbers of people whose job it is to "guide" your process... and then add the numbers up on the "vendor" side at the colleges. How many millions of dollars are going towards creating dubious value? What if those same persons could be directed towards something useful, like teaching? And what if there was, dare I say it, some transparency in the process?
Malcolm Gladwell, in his by now famous essay two years ago in the New Yorker, wrote about how the admissions policies at America's leading colleges has changed over the years and not entirely for the better. First, basically, the practice attempted to limit the number of qualified Jewish students to elite institutions. More recently, there is what Gladwell likens as a concern for its student profile as a "luxury brand" - a need by admissions staff to protect its status by making choices based more on a student's success in later life than his or her success while at university.
Of course, none of these criteria is or was ever officially acknowledged, which has given rise to a whole cadre of official (secondary school guidance staff) and unofficial (highly paid consultants) diviners of the academic will. I've a friend who follows the consultants and hired one last year; she tells me that they charge up to $30,000 for an engagement to re-package your student as "the happy little physicist." Because the process is, as Gladwell himself calls, it, "opaque" it gives rise to all sorts of elaborate and expensive ways to game it: think SEO for getting your kid onto the first page of the SERP.
If ever there was a cry for dis-intermediation this was it. Think first, to look at Jay Deragon's recent work on Vendor Relationship Management, of a way to provide just a tad more leverage for the students whose parents (the customers) are standing ready, willing and able to fork over $50,000 a year to the institution for the privilege of enrollment. Think next about a way to inject some transparency into the system. And to give the colleges themselves something they want, think last of way that a college can increase its "yield" but only offering admission to students who want to go there.
What if there were a global platform for colleges and students to share information about each other and the process? What if current students (not U.S. News) were responsible for rating their colleges and universities, providing more accurate and useful information for prospective enrollees? What if the student essay was a blog, searchable to all? What if the kinds of user-generated rating systems and search like key words and tag clouds could be put to use to help students and colleges alike check each other out before the final application is made? And what if all this happened in real-time and transparent, more or less, to the world?
I talked to my friend Eric last night about this. Eric is no stranger to technology, having run a successful hedge fund and now launching a new software solution for financial analysis, and he is facing the same admissions obstacle course with his son (who is my son's friend at school.) He agreed that social media could revolutionize, streamline and improve the process. Taking the idea further, he thinks that the process could be more like an auction where the colleges could design their ideal incoming class, then look to universally available profiles to fill it, and offer those applicants a first-level acceptance before the students filled out their 20-odd applications.
Given the sensitivity of such an endeavor, it may need to be organized by some non-profit foundation (are you out there, Google?) But what it would accomplish would be to put talented people to work doing something valuable and create some parity in the process for us beleaguered parents. Presumably the institution itself would also be guaranteed an incoming class closest to its objectives, and certainly would attain a higher proportion of acceptances. But the main reason for creating a socially-networked process would be to dis-intermediate the choke-hold that admissions officers, consultants and guidance counselors have over the ordeal. You know that when you have a huge industry devoted to creating obscurity and control, it's time for a revolution.