The End of College Admissions As We Know It

Everything you’ve heard about getting in is about to go out the window.

(UPDATE: A year later)

O n the morning of February 20, 2011, Jameel Reid woke up in the small apartment he shares with his mother on the far north end of Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood. He ate a cursory breakfast, laced up his sneakers, slung a brown nylon backpack over both shoulders, and walked out to the bus stop, determined to find his future.

Jameel is fourteen years old and a high school freshman, but he looks younger, slight and small. After an hour and a half on public transit, including one transfer and many stops and starts, a city bus deposited him on the side of a road with no sidewalk near Miami International Airport. He walked a while in the gravel as cars rushed by. Finally, he turned a corner and came to the entrance of the Miami Airport convention center, where thousands of people were lined up outside.

At school the week before, a teacher had mentioned Miami’s 2011 National College Fair. Jameel knew he wanted to go to college; so here he was. But after walking into the cavernous convention center, he stopped short. All of the other kids were there with their parents or a group of friends, he realized, with lists of prospective schools at the ready. He was alone. There were hundreds of college booths lined up in rows, each staffed by a smiling representative standing behind a stack of glossy brochures. Which ones should he go to? And when he got there, what should he do?

The floor was crowded, and Jameel, who is nearsighted, belatedly discovered that he had left his glasses at home. Okay—he liked computers and video games and thought maybe he could design them someday. That’s why he had enrolled in Honors Algebra II, the most advanced math class he could sign up for, and put himself on the college-prep science track. Computers were technology, right? That was a place to start. He carefully walked up and down each aisle, squinting at the signs on the wall, looking for colleges that had the word “technology” in their name.

It was hard to get anyone’s attention. Jameel’s voice is whisper soft with a slight stammer, and nearly everyone was bigger and taller. He would stand to the side and wait, for minutes sometimes, invisible to the college recruiters, until a spot opened up at a table where he could move in for a moment and grab a brochure. He stuffed them in his backpack and after several hours finally turned to leave the convention center, find his bus, and head for home.

Jameel is such a smart, motivated young man that it’s tempting to assume that things will work out for him, that he is bound to find his way to a good college or university. But the evidence suggests that such an outcome is far from certain. In 2009, the former Princeton University president William Bowen documented the pervasive problem of “under-matching” in higher education. Bowen examined a group of North Carolina high school students from across the income spectrum whose grades and SAT scores were good enough to get them into a top-tier university. Seventy-three percent of wealthy high performing students actually enrolled in such a university.

Only 41 percent of low-income high-performing students did the same. The under-matching rates for minority students and those whose parents never graduated from high school were similarly low. And under-matched students were significantly less likely to earn a college degree.

There are a number of reasons for this. Bad high schools usually lack the guidance counselors and visiting college recruiters that well-off students take for granted. Parents who haven’t been to college can’t use their experience to guide their children toward higher education. Plus, elite colleges are often very expensive and are becoming more so every year.

But there’s another culprit at work: the college admissions process itself. If you want to buy shares of stock, bid on antiques, search for a job, or look for Mr. Right in 2011, you will likely go to a marketplace driven by the electronic exchange of information. There will be quick, flexible transactions, broad access to buyers and sellers, and powerful algorithms that efficiently match supply and demand. If you are a student looking for a college or a college looking for a student, by contrast, you’re stuck with an archaic, over-complicated, under-managed system that still relies on things like bus trips to airport convention centers and the physical transmission of pieces of paper. That’s why under-matching is so pervasive. The higher education market only works for students who have the resources to overcome its terrible inefficiency. Everyone else is out of luck.

As a result, the odds appear to be against Jameel, who attends a 1,600-student public high school where the large majority of children qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program and the staff of three guidance counselors was cut to two last year. Determination can take you only so far if there’s no one to help you find your way.

But Jameel’s local school system has made one recent move that might work significantly in his favor. A few days after returning from the college fair, Jameel logged on to a new Web site that is the result of a contract between the Miami-Dade County school system and a Boston-based company called ConnectEDU. The site offered Jameel loads of information about different colleges and universities, along with strategies for filling out college applications and getting scholarships and financial aid. It was also a vessel for information about Jameel himself—his grades, courses, and activities, along with short animated quizzes designed to identify his strengths and goals. There were checklists and schedules and friendly reminders, all tailored to the personal aspirations the site had gleaned from Jameel, all focused on identifying the colleges that might meet them.

This is the future of college admissions. The market for matching colleges and students is about to undergo a wholesale transformation to electronic form. When the time comes for Jameel to apply to colleges, ConnectEDU will take all of the information it has gathered and use sophisticated algorithms to find the best colleges likely to accept him—to find a match for Jameel in the same way that Amazon uses millions of sales records to advise customers about what books they might like to buy and Match.com helps the lovelorn find a compatible date. At the same time, on the other side of the looking glass, college admissions officers will be peering into ConnectEDU’s trove of data to search for the right mix of students.

This won’t just help the brightest, most driven kids. Bad matching is a problem throughout higher education, from top to bottom. Among all students who enroll in college, most will either transfer or drop out. For African American students and those whose parents never went to college, the transfer/dropout rate is closer to two-thirds. Most students don’t live in the resource-rich, intensely college-focused environment that upper-middle-class students take for granted. So they often default to whatever college is cheapest and closest to home. Tools like ConnectEDU will give them a way to find something better.

The same tools will create a moment of truth for America’s most renowned institutions of higher education. The status quo in admissions has beneficiaries as well as victims—when a qualified poor student misses out on the Ivy League, a more well-off student usually goes in her stead. That’s one reason there are twenty-five upper-income students in elite colleges and universities for every lower-income student. ConnectEDU will allow admissions deans to reach out and find kids like Jameel with an ease and precision far beyond what they can accomplish today. The top schools swear up and down that they would love to admit more disadvantaged students, if only they could get them to apply. As college admissions transitions to an electronic market, we’ll find out if they really mean it.

If they do, slots in the most elite colleges will be even harder to come by than they are today. In a radically more efficient higher education market, only the brightest and most distinctive students will have a chance to attend the best schools. It’s hard enough to get into an Ivy League university when 30,000 people apply for a few thousand spots. Soon, applicants will be effectively competing with every other student in the world. The whole concept of a college “application” will start to fall by the wayside. And as a result, the higher education system will become more like the meritocracy it has long pretended to be.

I t wasn’t so long ago that the very idea of someone like Jameel Reid going to college seemed absurd. At the end of World War II, America’s elite colleges were still enclaves of white male Protestantism where character, athletic ability, and the family name were far more important than academic prowess. The man most responsible for changing this was Harvard University President James Conant, who believed that an ascendant postwar America needed to be led by an intellectual elite, not the inheritors of privilege. To identify those students, he helped broker the creation of the Educational Testing Service, publisher of the SAT. As Nicholas Lemann describes in his definitive history, The Big Test, this paper-and-pencil test of word associations and math problems would become, and remains, the nation’s single most important instrument for sorting and assigning students to different levels of educational opportunity.

Once Harvard made this shift, other elite universities risked becoming backwaters if they didn’t follow suit. Yale, which came to the admissions revolution later than its archrival did, undertook its shake-up in the mid-1960s, when the university hired a twenty-nine-year-old Yale alum named R. Inslee “Inky” Clark as admissions dean. Clark promptly fired his entire staff, staunched the flow of guaranteed prep school admits, and began hunting for bright students in exotic locales like Brooklyn. The university also phased out admissions policies that discriminated against groups like Catholics, minorities, and women. As the number of Yale students from the likes of Andover fell by half, William F. Buckley, a proud product of the old system, complained that “[t]he son of an alumnus, who goes to a private preparatory school, now has less chance of getting in than some boy from P.S. 109 somewhere.”

One of the first students to benefit from the new system was a Kentuckian named Jeff Brenzel. While his parents had never been to college, they valued education and sent him to an all-boys Catholic high school in Louisville. Brenzel’s father was Catholic and had his heart set on sending his valedictorian son to Notre Dame. But the Xaverian Brothers who ran Jeff’s high school wanted the prestige of Ivy-educated graduates, and Jeff believed in the time-honored principle that one’s parents must be wrong. He enrolled at Yale in 1971, one of only two Kentuckians who made the journey to New Haven that year. If he had been born five years earlier, there would have been no place for him, but he wasn’t, so there was. Brenzel went on to spend two years as a Jesuit novice, earn a PhD in philosophy, and work in the business world for two decades before returning to Yale as director of the alumni association. In 2005, the university asked him to take the job that Inky Clark had used to such effect: admissions dean.

The Yale Office of Undergraduate Admissions is located in a converted mansion on the north side of campus. The dean’s office is on the second floor, facing the street, with a couch, a fireplace, and an expanse of white bookshelves that Brenzel has filled with books about higher education. But the heart of the place is a short elevator ride down, in the basement. There, a single room with a low ceiling and cinderblock walls leads to a set of wide double doors in the rear where, until recently, a fleet of U.S. Postal Service trucks would back up and disgorge an absolutely phenomenal amount of paper every year.

The pile would grow with each passing application season. As the number of college students in America and around the world increased exponentially and the value of college degrees rose, a winner-takes-all effect had taken hold. Prestige led to more prestige, wealth to more wealth. The most elite colleges had become globally recognized, immensely valuable brands with multibillion-dollar endowments. The number of applications for the 1,300 annual spots at Yale shot upward, from just over 14,000 in 2001 to nearly 20,000 in 2005. (More than 27,000 applied for the 2011-12 freshman class.) Since Yale itself wasn’t growing nearly as quickly, admission rates dropped, augmenting the aura of exclusivity and prompting even more people to apply. The numbers at other elite schools looked much the same.

This created a huge data-processing challenge. Every application has multiple parts: transcripts, recommendation letters, SAT scores, Advanced Placement scores, high school profiles, personal essays, and more. When Brenzel arrived at Yale, the pieces didn’t all arrive at once. The ETS would mail official SAT scores, guidance counselors would send sealed teacher recommendations and transcripts, and the students would send the applications. Yale had to hire scores of temporary workers to sit at desks in the basement, opening envelopes, sorting through documents, and putting them in files. Then it had to hire a staff of admissions officers who would pull the tens of thousands of files from rolling metal library shelves installed at the other end of the room, read them, and try to identify the chosen few. Even for a university as rich as Yale, it was hard to keep up.

Yet, paradoxically, Brenzel still didn’t have all the information he needed. The college admissions world had changed drastically since the 1960s. Admissions deans at schools like Yale weren’t just expected to enroll the best and brightest. They were charged with “crafting” a perfectly balanced class of students—one that combined various kinds of budding genius with ethnic, racial, regional, and economic diversity, while simultaneously accommodating the diminished but still-powerful imperative to admit legacies and the children of the rich and powerful.

Brenzel had more than enough applications from well off students whose parents had wangled them into the right Manhattan preschool and shelled out tens of thousands of dollars for private “admissions consultants.” What he didn’t have enough of was first-generation and immigrant college students, people from rural areas, young men and women with unusual and offbeat talents, or, say, low-income black students from the tough part of town with a strong will and an enthusiasm for math. He couldn’t just wait for them to apply—most had no idea that Yale might want them, or that the college’s generous financial aid program would allow them to go for free. With budget cuts forcing many guidance counselors to take on 500 students or more, the public school system wasn’t much help. Brenzel would have to seek these students out.

The problem was that his means of doing so were very limited. It’s one thing to expand the universe of potential feeder high schools from Andover to P.S. 109 and the academically rigorous Catholic high school in the state capital. In this day and age, Brenzel needed to look everywhere. But the last real technological advance in college admissions had happened six decades earlier, with the invention of the SAT. Every year Yale would buy a list of students who scored above a certain SAT threshold and reported having a certain grade point average. Yale would mail these tens of thousands of students a standard glossy brochure. Brenzel knew that most of them weren’t good enough to get into Yale and would be rejected if they applied. But there was no other way to find the few who were good enough to get in.

Most admissions directors don’t lose any sleep over the number of brochures they send out. The more applications, the lower the admission rate, the better the college looks. But Brenzel’s Jesuit training and philosophical education gnawed at him. Inducing unqualified students to apply seemed ethically suspect. What if, because of him, they failed to apply to a good school that would have them? What if he prevented them from making the right match?

He also knew that, by definition, he was missing the most brilliant, interesting, and multidimensional students who happened to fall just short of the threshold SAT. They were out there, somewhere. But he couldn’t see them, and they didn’t know that he was looking.

The problem was hardly unique to Yale. In an ideal world, colleges would be able to study their admissions data, using statistical analysis to identify the patterns and behaviors likely to produce a good match. Are their SAT thresholds set in the right place? What high school courses are best correlated to graduating from college? Colleges have very little ability to answer these questions, because admissions information is still largely stored on pieces of paper. Many colleges have purchased systems that scan transcripts and teacher recommendations into electronic files that can be viewed on computers. But those are just images of pieces of paper. They don’t represent information that can be mined for insight.

Because the information that might help them is entombed in file folders, colleges resort to an expensive, inefficient, scattershot strategy. A typical midrange private college looking to enroll 1,200 freshmen might buy a list of 350,000 names from the College Board. An expensive but poorly targeted direct-mail campaign leads to 11,000 applications. They accept 5,000, of whom only 1,200 choose to enroll. Of those, more than half drop out or transfer, leaving the college struggling to bring in enough tuition revenue to pay their bills and left with no option other than buying another 350,000 names.

Students have a similar problem. It’s hard to choose the right college. Higher education is what economists call an “experiential good,” something you can’t fully understand until after you purchase and experience it. As parents of college age children know, students often assemble a list of prospective schools through a frighteningly arbitrary process of hearsay, peer misinformation, and fleeting impressions gained during slickly produced college tours. Or, worse, they don’t assemble a prospective list at all and default to inexpensive, nearby institutions. Some of those local colleges are terrible places to go to school. (See “College Dropout Factories,” September/October 2010.) Too many students don’t find out until it’s too late.

Soon after settling into the dean’s office, Jeff Brenzel started trying to solve some of these problems. Like many other colleges, Yale began by scanning paper documents into electronic files. The Common Application, which is used by several hundred mostly selective colleges, began providing more information in digital form.

But Brenzel needed to do more than just increase the efficiency of the information flow from existing applicants. He needed to find new applicants, students who weren’t showing up in the traditional pool, and convince them to apply to Yale. To locate them, he turned to someone who had also made it to the Ivy League through a combination of hard work and being in the right place at the right time. His name was Craig Powell, the founder and president of ConnectEDU.

B y the time he reached eighth grade, Craig Powell had all the markings of a classic American achiever. As head of the 1991 middle school student council in rural Maryville, Missouri, he shook hands with the governor and won his school national recognition from President Bush. High school was more of the same: the only freshman on the speech and debate team, youth leadership training, class president four years running. Craig knew that a good college came next. But he didn’t know how to get there—or where “there” even was. All his guidance counselor could suggest was taking the ACT. Craig scored a 28, the equivalent of 1260 on the SAT. That was good, but a hair below the threshold that would have put him on the mailing list of the colleges that matched his powerful but vague aspirations. For most students like Craig, this would have been the end of any grand designs.

But Craig Powell stood out in one other way. In 1994 and 1995, he amassed a record of sixty-three wins and zero losses in Missouri Class 1A wrestling, 189-pound division, taking home the state championship both years. The big midwestern sports machines noticed. Dozens recruited him. Seven college wrestling coaches made the trip to Craig’s living room in Maryville, full scholarships in hand.

He turned them all down. Craig knew that by taking a scholarship he would be seen as a wrestler first, a student second. He graduated from high school with no idea what to do next, other than go to work at a fireworks stand. Again, that could have been the end of his larger aspirations. But what followed instead was a series of improbable events involving a chance phone call; an Army scholarship to an East Coast prep school; a shoulder injury that kept Craig out of West Point; and, ultimately, admission to Brown University—a school Craig had never heard of until after he left Missouri.

Craig was still dating his high school girlfriend when he made it to Brown. She was two years younger and finishing high school in Barnard, Missouri, a no-stoplight town with a graduating class of nine students. She grew up living in a trailer with her divorced mother, a nursing aide who took home $13,000 a year. The biggest event of her senior year involved her uncle being arrested for murder after running over his wife with a combine. Haley was smart, had good grades, and wanted to get the hell out of Barnard, Missouri.

Craig brought Haley to New England to look at schools. She settled on Providence College, filled out the application, and waited for news. In February, Craig began pestering her: Are you sure you filled out all the financial aid forms? Wasn’t there one more? No, she said, it’s fine. Weeks later, good news arrived in the mail. She had gotten in to Providence College. Tears of joy were shed; now they just had to wait for the financial aid package.

More weeks went by. The package never arrived. Finally they called the college. What financial aid? the college said. You never filled out the last form, “Part B”—the one with seven short questions simply confirming that all the financial information you submitted in Part A (like the fact that your divorced mother lives in a trailer and earns $13,000 a year) is still correct. So we assumed you didn’t need any financial aid, and now it’s all gone.

Craig called Providence College pretending to be her uncle (not the one with the combine). He pleaded with their sense of mission and public obligation. Isn’t she the kind of student you’re here to serve? He eventually wore them down, and they cobbled together a financial aid package heavy on loans. Craig and Haley didn’t stay together. But she did enroll at Providence College. In fact, she earned top grades, married the class president, held the ceremony on campus, and still works in higher education today.

While at Brown, Craig showed an early knack for entrepreneurship. He started a company called Ivy Tutors and staffed it with classmates who provided extra help to area high school students. In the process, he realized that northwest Missouri wasn’t the only place where your educational destination had a lot do with where you start. A few blocks north of the Brown campus is Hope High School, a notoriously dysfunctional public institution riddled by poverty and low performance. Directly across the street is Moses Brown School, an elite private academy that sends its graduates into the upper reaches of higher education. Craig charged students from places like Moses Brown one price and used the proceeds to charge parents from places like Hope High much less.

During the summer between semesters, Craig also worked for a large financial firm that invested in the health care industry. The dot-com revolution was well under way, so they sent Craig to San Francisco to spend time with entrepreneurs who were trying to digitize the vast troves of medical information locked in paper medical records. The old analog health record system was wasting phenomenal amounts of money and resulting in substandard—even fatal—medical outcomes.

Craig saw clear parallels in college admissions. In what kind of world can a few checkmarks on Form B be the difference between one kind of life and another? The higher education system had sent seven recruiters promising full scholarships to his living room because he was good at pinning people to a mat. Why hadn’t anyone come because he was smart and driven and the only freshman on the speech and debate team? And what about all the other students who weren’t quite so driven or quite so lucky—shouldn’t they have a choice other than Northwest Missouri State? Craig hadn’t won another tournament, he realized; he had won a lottery—one in which some people got a fistful of tickets and others none at all. That insight, paired with the realization that there was profit to be made in overturning the current system, became the seed of ConnectEDU.

ConnectEDU has two main types of clients. The first are middle and high schools and, by extension, the families served by them. The company sets up a series of Web sites for students, parents, and guidance counselors. All of the students’ academic information—course descriptions, grades, standardized test scores, interest inventories, and more—are loaded in. Starting in the seventh grade, students can log on and start filling out short questionnaires that help them figure out where they might like to go to college. Then the computer program lays out a path describing all the steps the student will need to take to get there. This is what Jameel Reid and his classmates have access to, starting this year.

There’s a lot of focus on course selection. Selective colleges like to see a progression of increasingly difficult courses, particularly in science and math. To take Calculus in the twelfth grade, you have to take Algebra I in the eighth grade. Some students, like Jameel, figure this out on their own. But many others don’t learn how important this is until they start seriously looking at colleges in the eleventh grade or later—years too late. ConnectEDU continually analyzes data from hundreds of thousands of students to refine and identify the pathways that are most likely to lead to college success. The program analyzes lists of potential colleges, compares them to students’ academic trajectory, and tells them if they’re shooting too high or not high enough. (The Air Force uses similar algorithms to adjust the in-flight trajectory of guided missiles.)

The program also tracks deadlines for admissions testing, scholarship applications, and financial aid, and sends alerts to students’ mobile phones when problems—e.g., “You haven’t filled out Part B”—occur. Parents and guidance counselors can also access the data. With many school budgets in crisis and student-to-guidance counselor ratios soaring, such tools can be crucial.

Then, when college application season approaches, the ConnectEDU “SuperAPP” program automatically populates the applications of students’ target colleges with information from its database. Typically, 85 percent of each application is already filled out before students and parents lift a finger. The program helped students in the impoverished Detroit public school system fill out over 4,000 college applications in one week.

All of this is completely free for high schools. That’s because ConnectEDU makes most of its money from the second set of clients: colleges and universities.

Processing paper is expensive and time-consuming. Filing clerks cost money, and admissions officers can’t start reviewing a file until all of the pieces have been assembled. The all-paper process that Yale was still using in 2005 (and many colleges still use today) costs a high-volume admissions department about $30 per application to process and eighty-five days to complete, according to ConnectEDU. Applications that come through ConnectEDU cost about $1 to process and arrive instantaneously. Craig Powell’s business proposition to colleges is straightforward: Give me some of the savings and keep the rest for yourself. Your applications will be cheaper, faster, more accurate, and protected against the kind of fraud that allowed an ethically challenged young man named Adam Wheeler to fake his way into Harvard a few years ago. Instead of pieces of paper with data printed on them, or digital images of pieces of paper, you’ll get actual data that you can analyze to make better decisions about whom to admit.

Business models like this depend on “network effects,” where the more clients you have, the more your service is worth. Software developers want to write apps for the iPhone because there are a lot of iPhones. There are a lot of iPhones because people want to be able to choose from among a lot of apps. Once a business reaches a tipping point of market share, network effect logic takes over and everyone gets rich. Similarly, the value of ConnectEDU to high schools rises as the number of colleges accepting applications from the company’s data system goes up, and the value to colleges rises with each new participating high school.

There are other players in this market, including the Common Application and a company called Naviance, which offers electronic college planning tools for high school students. The virtue of ConnectEDU, though, is that it spans the entire process, from late middle school into college and beyond. The company’s first foray into the market came in 2006, when it signed up three colleges and fifteen high schools. In 2007, it was up to thirty-five high schools and 300 colleges. It began signing up school districts instead of individual schools, then moved to contracts with entire states, starting with Michigan. The number of high schools increased to 700 in 2008, 1,700 in 2009, and 2,500 in 2010. That amounts to about 2.5 million students. The Miami-Dade County school system joined the network last year. The state of Hawaii signed up in May 2011.

The number of colleges using the service has also increased, to 450, representing a decent—though not quite commanding—subset of the schools that receive large numbers of applications. Yale signed up in 2008.

If network effects take hold and millions more students are added to the ConnectEDU system, Craig Powell will soon have a database containing phenomenal amounts of information about students in grades seven to twelve. Things like the exact sequence of courses they have taken, and their grades in each one. Their extracurriculars, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate test scores, and whether they qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. Instead of a snapshot of where students are at one point in time, the data will show the pattern of where they have been and where they are headed. It will show, in other words, all of the things that people like Jeff Brenzel want to know about students but can’t get from the College Board. Things he currently only finds out only after students submit an application.

Strict federal privacy laws prevent ConnectEDU from releasing personally identifiable information about students without their permission. But what it can do is let Jeff Brenzel sit down at his desk and search the ConnectEDU database for promising students who don’t show up on the list of names he gets from the College Board. ConnectEDU would then send an e-mail and text message to each student on the list that says “The admissions director of Yale University would like to send you a personal e-mail. Are you interested?” A Facebook-style friend request, in other words. All the College Board can sell is a haystack in which colleges can rummage around, trying to find a needle. ConnectEDU will be selling access to the needle itself.

If students accept his friend request, Brenzel and his staff can start asking them more questions about their academic aspirations. He can do this long before college applications are due, in the sophomore or junior year. If a student falls short on the SAT, Brenzel can encourage them to take it again. If they’re wavering on enrolling in a tough math class in their senior year, he can explain how much colleges like Yale value the inclination to tackle difficult courses.

He can, in other words, start approaching the task of finding the best students in the United States in the same way that big-time wrestling coaches in the Midwest approach the task of recruiting unusually quick and strong young men to wrestle at 189 pounds. He won’t be limited to the relatively small number of high schools to which Yale can send an in-person representative, or to the ones that have placed students at the university before. He won’t have to wait until applications arrive, at which point it’s too late to provide any meaningful advice. The guided-missile algorithms will be turned in the other direction, helping him find the students who are most likely to succeed. He’ll know exactly where to find who he’s looking for, whether it’s Little Haiti or a no-stoplight town in rural Missouri or anywhere else.

Best-of-the-best institutions like Yale are in intense competition with peers like Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford for students who combine brilliance and diverse backgrounds. Much like the SAT in its early days, ConnectEDU will give its early adopters a leg up, which will likely cause their rivals to follow suit. Instead of choosing among tens of thousands of applicants, top schools will eventually be choosing among all 3.3 million students who graduate from high school each year. And as striving students in foreign countries become part of the system (ConnectEDU has clients in Canada and Australia) the number will get larger still. Favored private schools, test prep, essay-writing consultants, and other well-worn paths to privilege for not-quite-exceptional children of means will narrow.

Other colleges slightly lower in the heap talk a good game about serving the public interest, but their actions suggest more dubious motives. As the annual Washington Monthly suggest, some well-known institutions have bought their way up the prestige ladder by all but excluding low-income students, focusing instead on recruiting the children of wealthy donors and politicians, or students whose SAT scores drive up their U.S. News & World Report ranking. Poor students require financial aid, and status-seeking universities would rather spend their money on new buildings and a winning basketball team. If ConnectEDU works as its designers hope, it will smoke out colleges that pay mere lip service to the goal of social mobility. Even if they don’t go looking for the Jameels of this world, ConnectEDU will help the Jameels find them. These schools will be inundated with applications from worthy non-rich students, and they’ll have to explain to the public why their doors are shut.

Most colleges, of course, aren’t very selective; they’re mainly looking to fill seats. Many of these institutions have also signed on as ConnectEDU clients. One can imagine them using a tool like ConnectEDU to indiscriminately spam millions of unsuspecting students, like so many Facebook friend requests from your mom’s cousin’s best friend. That said, less-selective colleges also face a challenge that Jeff Brenzel doesn’t have to worry about: enrolling students who won’t wash out within weeks of arriving. Used wisely, the company’s algorithms will help them find students who are likely to stick, succeed, and maybe even raise the school’s game academically. The new software tools will also help the average student become a shrewder shopper. Rather than defaulting to the local community college or open-access university, they’ll be able to find out earlier in high school what kind of courses will get them into a better college—and where that better college might be. Mediocre local colleges and universities will start to lose their captive audience. As the market becomes more efficient, more students will enroll in the right college at the beginning of the process and emerge with a diploma at the end.

C raig Powell lives in Boston now. His company takes up the entire twentieth floor of a downtown office tower owned by the Federal Reserve. On a clear day, you can look east and see Harvard and MIT. Craig comes to work in the jeans, jacket, and boots of a successful Internet entrepreneur. The only signs of northwest Missouri are his ears, cauliflowered by years on the wrestling mat. He doesn’t want to fix them. They remind him of how far he’s come.

ConnectEDU software designers traveled to Yale last year to interview admissions officers about how, exactly, they would like to search for prospective students. This summer, in the lull before the deluge of applications begins again in the fall, Jeff Brenzel and his staff began putting the ConnectEDU system to work. They’re searching in particular for two qualities: underclassmen with an aptitude for challenging courses in science and math, and low-income students who are earning good grades.

Jameel Reid, meanwhile, is about to begin his sophomore year. He enjoyed Algebra II last school year and got excellent marks, although he didn’t think his teacher was tough enough. For the coming year, he’s signed up for Geometry, Physics, and two computer courses: Engineering Technology and Technology Studies. The university he most wants to attend is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, because he understands it to be one of the best engineering schools. Beyond that, he’s not sure where to apply—somewhere with a good degree in computer sciences, he guesses.

Perhaps Yale or another ConnectEDU client will find Jameel and clear his path to the Ivy League. Or perhaps ConnectEDU will help him find an institution like Purdue University, a well-regarded Midwestern engineering school that would love to enroll more smart minority students. Jameel walked right by the Purdue booth at the college fair, because it didn’t have the word “technology” in its name and he didn’t have anyone along to help him understand what he was missing. Now he does, and that could make all the difference.

Kevin Carey

Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation.