3 Ways Big Data Is Changing College Admissions
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3 Ways Big Data Is Changing College Admissions

By Niels V.

Numbers matter. Numbers especially matter when you’re applying to college. Numbers are how admissions officers compare you to the next applicant. Your standardized test scores and your GPA are all numbers that will play a role in determining where you spend the next four years or so of your life.

Numbers have always mattered, but today they matter more than ever. Big data has made it possible for anyone off the street to collect and analyze massive troves of numbers. And you can bet colleges aren’t missing out on the trend.

In general terms, college admissions is all about prediction. Colleges try to predict which applicants will thrive in a college environment. Organizations like U.S. News & World Report try to predict which colleges will give students the best education. And students try to predict the which schools they’ll be able to get accepted to.

What’s the best way to make a prediction? Collect a lot of data. Run the statistics. Look for trends. With so much predicting going on as part of the college admissions process, it’s no surprise that college admissions is evolving into a strange statistical dance with colleges, applicants and rankings analysts all warily circling each other as they sift through fistfuls of data.

All the rankings and analytics and the obsession with statistics in college admissions (what’s our acceptance rate this year? Is it lower than last year? We want to be selective!) can seem a little surreal. But remember – numbers matter. As big data reshapes college admissions, there are real consequences for applicants. Here are 3 changes you should be aware of.

  1. Social media sneaked into the college admissions process when no one was looking

 It’s hard to talk about big data without talking about social media. Facebook is the ultimate example of big data in action. Social media platforms in general are a dream for advertisers, cornucopias of data on users’ demographics, interests and search histories.

Some schools, especially for-profit colleges like University of Phoenix, use social media ads to target specific demographics of potential students. But the use of social media in college admissions goes far beyond analytic-driven advertising.

Admissions officers are increasingly turning to social media to get a read on who applicants are. Everyone puts their best essay forward in college applications, but social media can be a way to get a glimpse of people in a more casual setting.

If you think admissions deans aren’t really interested in quietly exploring your Facebook profile (surely they have better things to do, right??), think again. A 2015 survey by Kaplan found that 40 percent of admissions officers reported checking up on applicants’ social media profiles!

The idea of an admissions officer reading over your application and then signing onto Facebook to scroll down your timeline might already seem a little disconcerting, but Ithaca College decided to take things one step further – they created their own social media network!

IC PEERS, a social media platform the school debuted in 2007, allows prospective students to get in touch with each other and with faculty members. It also allows the school to gauge applicants’ interest. To the surprise of some applicants, Ithaca subsequently revealed that it was looking at IC PEERS users’ activity to predict which applicants were more interested in Ithaca. For example, those who friended more people on the network were deemed stronger candidates.

Katharine Frase, public sector vice president and CTO at IBM, the company selling the software Ithaca uses for its analyses, suggested that using big data this way could increase enrollment and retention rates: “When a student doesn’t complete a degree, it is disruptive for everybody. The student has incurred debt and the school is left with a hole in that class.”

Faced with the possibility of their social media posts becoming data points in their college applications, students have opted for a variety of self-defense techniques. Some have changed their profile names and privacy settings to make it harder for admissions officers to find them. Others have been careful to curate profiles that cast them in a favorable light. And still others have thrown in the towel entirely, deactivating social media accounts for college application season.

At the very least, it’s worth remembering that everything college applicants put online is public and that some college admissions officers really are interested in snooping through your social media posts.


  1. College rankings have created an incentive to spend more money and reject more applicants

 Colleges have plenty of algorithms and statistical methodologies for predicting which students are the best bets. But what happens when they analyzer becomes the analyzed?

Just like colleges crunch the numbers on applicants, organizations like U.S News & World Report crunch the numbers on colleges. To see how influential the U.S. News rankings are and how a higher or lower ranking can move the needle in the public perception prestige-o-meter, consider that multiple colleges have risked their reputations by straight-up lying in the numbers they report to U.S. News.

While the point is to give students and parents a feel for how different colleges stack up with each other, the rankings have several unintended consequences.

For example, 10 percent of a school’s ranking is determined by how much money that school spends on a per-student basis. With few restrictions on how that money is spent, schools have a strong incentive to raise tuition costs and spend as much money as possible.

Another 12.5 percent of a given college’s ranking is based on “student selectivity.” In turn, 65 percent of that criteria is calculated from students’ standardized test scores and 10 percent from acceptance rate. Therefore, colleges are rewarded for focusing on standardized test scores in the admissions process and for rejecting more students.

At this point, you can start to see the problem with numbers: numbers themselves are objective, but how we interpret them isn’t. Theoretically, ranking schools higher for spending more on their students will help distinguish schools with more financial resources. But when schools decide to game the system to bring up their numbers, these measures can start to do more harm than good.

Of course, the problem isn’t big data in general but how we use big data. As the Department of Education has shown with their College Scorecard, it’s also possible to use big data to inform students about which schools offer the best results for their sticker prices. Numbers can be used either to solve a problem or to make it worse, and it’s always worth stopping to ask ourselves whether we’re doing the former or the latter.

  1. Data digital flowApplicants are starting to use big data to get an edge

 While colleges have enjoyed the benefits of big data so far, applicants have tended to feel the downsides. Few applicants really enjoy having their social media profiles monitored, paying higher tuition fees, or scrambling to keep up with the intensified focus on standardized test scores and acceptance rates.

It’s not a mystery why students and parents have missed out on the pluses of big data in college admissions: while colleges and third-party organizations like U.S. News have the financial resources to take advantage of big data, the possibilities are more limited for individuals just looking for a college education.

Still, there are some signs that using big data to give applicants more insight into the application process may be an emerging trend in college admissions. The College Scorecard is Exhibit A in how big data can empower applicants.

Big data can also be used to determine where applicants have the best shot at admission. Admissions consultants like ThinkTank Learning, for example, will predict where students are likely to be accepted and return families’ money if the prediction turns out to be wrong.

Despite these applications of big data to give students an edge in the admissions process, though, big data remains mostly something used by the colleges and by third parties like U.S. News rather than something that benefits applicants.

The point to keep in mind, then, is that when we use a number in the college admissions process, it becomes more than just a number. Numbers can have real consequences. Think tuition rates and SAT scores.

It’s pretty much a given that big data will continue to stake out its territory as an integral part of college admissions, maybe in ways we haven’t even imagined yet. What’s not a given, though, is how we decide to use big data and interpret the things it tells us. Using these numbers thoughtfully or thoughtlessly will be a determining factor in how costly and stressful for families the college admissions process becomes.

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