Algorithms in Higher Ed Enrollment

In the article published by EdSurge and Slate, the author discusses the shift from the current standardized test-based enrollment to an algorithmic-based admissions future. The piece explores the pitfalls of standardized testing and how algorithms, though flawed, may be the future of higher education enrollment.

The interesting thing about pieces like this and the many others that focus on college enrollment is that they don’t illustrate the full picture. The truth is most colleges accept most students (see Pew research for exact data). Even the schools where acceptance rates have fallen over the past twenty years have experienced tremendous growth in application volume.

Due to tools that eliminate the friction of submitting an application and the rise in overall college-going rates, students apply to more schools, but ultimately only attend one. This leads to lower yield rates which is one of the key metrics for modern enrollment management. As such, at most schools, algorithms are increasingly important in determining which students will yield.

Algorithms may substitute standardized tests at the nation’s top institutions, but most colleges will likely continue accepting a similar number of students. Short of massive consolidations or closures, the state of enrollment seems unlikely to change due to test-optional/blind policies at most schools. Universities may become savvier about understanding a student’s behavior as it relates to matriculation, but this will always be balanced with the need for meeting enrollment targets. Most schools should be focused on algorithms that look to match students to school rather than weed them out from the handful of elite colleges.

Rather than exclusionary algorithms, schools should be focused on algorithms that guide students to match with colleges. Colleges could benefit from more technology that helps students, especially first-gen students, make the transition between high school and college seamless. Anyone who has worked with college-bound students knows how complicated college enrollment is. Students search for scholarships in one portal but handle applications in another and the same applies to the various school staff, scholarship administrators and admissions professionals. Everyone feels the burden of coordination and this falls most heavily on students. So rather than spending time on having meaningful conversations about college a lot of time is spent coordinating and searching to ensure nothing is missed.

Though there are tools out there that seek to match students and colleges, more can be done. These tools can, for those seeking a post-secondary credential, make college an opt-out process rather than the current opt-in. Algorithms should encourage student behavior rather than weed them out.

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