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Tough to pick a college?

Data crunchers hope to help
Northwestern University freshman Halle Lukasiewicz, 18, remembers being stressed out by a chatroom devoted to Northwestern hopefuls called “College Confidential.” The popularity of social media sites and advancements in analyzing lots of data we put online mean today’s high school seniors have more tools than ever to help them find the right college.

WASHINGTON – For many high school seniors, fall means deciding where to apply for college and maybe visiting a guidance counselor.

The popularity of social media sites and advancements in the ability to analyze the vast amounts of data we put online give members of the class of 2015 more tools than ever to help chart their next step, even if finding the right college is an inexact science.

The professional networking site LinkedIn has just come out with its “University Finder,” which identifies which colleges are popular with which companies. Parchment.com pools student data to predict an individual’s college admission prospects. There’s even a dating service-like site for higher education: Admitted.ly pairs students with colleges based on such as factors as body piercings and whether applicants go to church.

These sites are joining the game of college rankings, which has some education experts excited and other rolling their eyes.

“For many families and students, the admissions process is very opaque,” said Matthew Pittinsky, co-founder of the education technology giant Blackboard and chief executive officer of Parchment. “And what’s happing now is that they (students) are beginning to share data with each other ... to bring transparency” to the process.

Lloyd Thacker, head of the Education Conservancy and a critic of college rankings, has another take: These sites are one more way to profit from senior-year angst and encourage group-think.

“Technology has no inner logic,” he said. “Just because it’s there, doesn’t mean we should use it.”

Picking a college is nothing like it once was. In 1980, there were 3,150 colleges and universities, according to the Department of Education, and a primary factor for many students was location.

Now, there are close to 4,700 schools, many of which go out of their way to attract out-of-state students because of the money they bring. Many schools might seem more selective than they really are, and students worried about getting turned down apply to lots of schools as a way to hedge their bets.

Halle Lukasiewicz, 18, said she remembers the day Northwestern University, a private research university in Illinois and her top choice, began emailing acceptance letters. A chatroom devoted to Northwestern hopefuls on a site called “College Confidential” was buzzing. Kids were posting their grades and test scores and whether they had gotten in.

Lukasiewicz, an occasional lurker on the site, found she could not look away even though her mom begged her to stop.

“My heart was racing,” she said.

Finally, an email slid across her phone: accepted. Now a Northwestern freshman studying radio, television and film, Lukasiewicz said she’s not sure the site added much value other than to stress her out. She credits her parents, a good guidance counselor and a company called “AcceptU” with helping her find the appropriate school and prepare an attractive application.

“You can’t assess whether someone’s going to get in based on numbers,” she said. “It’s not just luck, but everyone’s different. There are very, very capable students who don’t get into top colleges, and no one really knows why. It just happens ... But I think it’s extremely important for students not to get fazed by other people on the Internet telling them they’re not going to get in.”

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