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Good Schools Guide

How technology is changing university admissions

  • Much of the change is positive but to reap the benefits, the student must control the technology and not vice versa
PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 November, 2018, 1:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 November, 2018, 1:02pm

‘Whatever Happened to the 2-Day Week?’ This was the theme of a BBC documentary, itself several decades old, that recalled the widely held belief that the advance of technology and automation would mean that we would all have to work much less and that our biggest challenge would be to decide what to do with all that extra leisure time. We all know what happened: we’re all working longer and harder than ever.

Is it a similar story with University Admissions: has technology made things easier or more difficult? The answer is a mixed one.

Access to Information

It’s undeniable that this is the main effect and benefit of the technological revolution that has been taking place (and picking up speed) over the past decade or two. For a student applying to university, this means that every morsel of information on any course or college in the world is available at the click of a mouse. Gone are those printed prospectuses that were several months out of date by the time they were distributed (or are they?).

Does this leave applicants better informed or simply overwhelmed by the sheer volume of choice they are faced with? That’s a dilemma many adults are faced with in using the same technology to research jobs, holidays or even a new romantic friendship. Have we developed the skills to keep up with the technology and benefit from it rather than succumb to the agony of excessive choice?

Access to Opinion

If the internet was only a source of factual information, teenagers wouldn’t have their faces buried in their smartphones for several hours each day. The Higher Education equivalent of hotel and food reviews can be found on student review sites and message boards such as College Confidential and the Student Room. University Rankings purport to be based on objective data and criteria but the choice of the latter is a form of opinion and ‘reputational’ status is often one of the key elements. We love lists and are so readily seduced by university rankings that they multiply by the year.

Access to Apply

University applicant numbers have multiplied year on year and, as a consequence, acceptance percentages or admit rates have plummeted to around 5 per cent for the most selective US colleges. Take a look at these admit stats for Northwestern University.

Year of Entry 1993 2007 2017
Applicants 12,640 21,930 37,259
Admit Rate 43% 27% 9%

This is a direct consequence of the ease with which students can apply online and the development online of systems such as Common App that allow students to apply to multiple colleges on the one platform. This is exacerbated and fuelled by the anxiety and hype surrounding such alarming statistics, so that a vicious circle is created that feeds upon itself.

Some look back fondly on the days when one had to write by mail to request an application package and then fill in the college’s application form by hand and then send it off by mail to each college separately. Why the nostalgia? Because it made you think carefully about each choice and research it thoroughly.

Access to Campus

In the not too distant past, those unable to physically visit college campuses would have to make do with a few photos in a university prospectus and, to contact admissions staff, make a very expensive phone call.

Now, virtual online campus tours are increasingly sophisticated and admissions staff are accessible by email, Live Chat and Skype.

Access to Learning

From MOOCs (Massive Open Online courses) to individual online universities, to edX’s “stackable micro bachelors’ courses” as reported in the SCMP this month, the web is taking college-level learning to the wider world, beyond the ivory towers of yore. But even edX’s founder, Anant Agarwal admits that this is not a direct threat to traditional universities.

On a micro level there are many technological developments that have given those with special learning needs greater access to a university education while, for those whose need is to stay in bed a bit longer, the lecture may be live on video or at least transcribed online.

The Age of the Algorithm

Has your mobile phone started to tell you what you like and what you should search next? Mine has and, apart from finding it creepy, I don’t like it.

However, algorithms based on criteria that you enter deliberately and ‘consciously’ can help in the College Search process, particularly where the number of options is so numerous; such as the United States with 4,000+ institutions. Searches such as those provided by the College Board, Princeton Review and WhatUni (UK) have been around for a while and have proliferated in recent years. Some now even provide a chance of entry in percentage terms with the results and there has been something of a feeding frenzy in recent months with the loss of the Naviance platform to schools outside the US, as competitors and new start-ups offer their comprehensive search and application solutions (in a short period of consulting in a Hong Kong international school last month, I sat in on three such pitches).

I encourage my students to use this technology and I recommend the best college searches; but as part of a self-directed research process that also employs printed and human resources. Rather like TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet and Booking.com in our vacation planning, this technology can help us but shouldn’t make the decision for us.

Technology is also changing the way Admissions Offices operate but that will have to wait for another blog. For the student embarking on the journey to college, technology used well is a fantastic asset; whether you’re breaking down the numbers in your research or sending your art portfolio by SlideRoom. Just make sure you’re the one in charge.