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How college applications change in the era of Big Data

The Obama administration wants the government to get in the business of college ratings.

The number of college applications per capita is at an all-time high in America, and that's not making life any easier in the Admissions Office.

"I've applied to four schools and I'm thinking of applying to a few more," says Tim Murphy.

The high school senior from St. Louis sent in applications to places like Vanderbilt University and the University of Missouri, and he is nowhere near landing on his top choice.

"Almost anything feels like it can change my mind sometimes," Murphy says. "Stories I hear from friends who go to these schools, or the amount of money I'm getting from these schools."

Now that the application process has been moved online, kids are applying to more schools than ever. And all those applications stuffed into servers are making it harder for colleges to predict if a student will actually accept an admissions offer.

On a recent afternoon at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, hundreds of prospective students and their parents walk through the student center. Director of Admissions Todd Burrell is the guy in a three piece suit hanging out by the registration table.

"We know kids are applying to more and more schools, but they can only pick one," Burrell says.

Folks in the admissions business call this "yield," or the percentage of kids who accept admissions offers.

Like many schools, the university did not hit its target yield last year.

Fewer students can mean less revenue, and the school is using big data to step up its marketing game.

"What can we do more to keep them engaged in this process and say, 'I want to go there,'?" asks Burrell.

The university buys contact information from testing companies, and then sends all those kids e-mails.

The moment a kid clicks a request for more information, the marketing wheels start to turn: phone calls, e-mails, direct mailings, you name it.

Some institutions are taking this process to a whole new level.

"As a student goes through the search and application process, many times unbeknownst to them, colleges are collecting information about everything that they do," says David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Messages, campus visits, even social media interactions, are logged into admissions software.

"When the application is received, the college then has sort of a trove of data on the student," Hawkins says.

Hawkins stresses that a student has to clear an institution's academic bar. But he says colleges don't want to offer up a spot to a student who isn't likely to enroll, and all that data is crunched in the search for something called "demonstrated interest."

"How likely you are to enroll in the institution if you're accepted? That's 'demonstrated interest' in a nutshell," Hawkins says.

Mostly colleges want to see that a student has stayed in touch during the application process, but Hawkins says some go so far as to analyze the order a student lists schools on their federal aid application.

The idea is that students will put their preferred schools at the top of the list.

Under rising pressure to hit enrolment numbers, more schools are reaching to consultants for help. Hawkins says those contracts can be worth millions of dollars.

"The profession as it exists now is almost alien to the people who got into the business 20 or 30 years ago," Hawkins says.

Colleges are also using big data to help make sure kids leave campus with a degree, experimenting with systems designed to help catch struggling students before they fall through the cracks.

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