…And a Third-Round Draft Pick

I’d love to have a fully-developed position on the Concourse platform outlined in Inside Higher Ed on Monday. At this point, though, honesty compels me to settle for a few acknowledgments and a few misgivings. It could be helpful, or it could go very, very wrong.

The service, apparently, is aimed at students who are applying to relatively nonselective four-year colleges. Community colleges go unmentioned, which struck me as odd; the students who don’t get offers elsewhere are welcome at community colleges, which also tend to be affordable. But that may be a function of the fact that colleges need to pay to play.

In any event, the service asks students to fill out anonymous profiles, which are circulated among participating colleges in the Chicago area. I’m picturing something like the NFL draft, in which teams select college players and essentially get dibs on them.* In this case, those who don’t get drafted seem like they should at least get a referral to the local community college.

Concourse makes its money from the colleges themselves. The students don’t pay.

The company tries to say that it performs a matchmaking service, aligning the right students to the right colleges, even if the students have never heard of the colleges in question. To which I say, maybe. The colleges are the ones paying; they’re the customers. In terms of student knowledge of the institutions in question, the story mentions conversations with admissions representatives. That’s something, but the admissions reps’ incentives are fairly clear.

Having recently gone through the admissions process for selective institutions with The Girl, I can attest that some sort of common portfolio would have saved a lot of time. The Common App was supposed to do that, but several places added bells and whistles to their applications. I assume the point of that was to filter out unserious applicants. The upshot, though, was a lot more work for the serious ones. The worst part, common to many, was the “manually type in every class you’ve taken in high school along with the grades” step. I’m told that they do that because transcripts take too long to arrive and are too idiosyncratic, but that seems like a solvable problem. We already have a standard nutrition label on packaged foods; how hard would a standard format for transcripts be?

(ducks)

If a common portfolio means that a student only has to enter all of that information once, I see the appeal. And being able to enter the SAT/ACT scores once (if at all) saves the expense of paying for separate score reports to go to each school, which is a particularly obnoxious expense. As the test-optional movement takes root, this may become less relevant, but avoiding the cost and hassle of extra score reports is something.

And the Concourse folks make a fair point about students being subjected to email overload. Email became a running joke with TG. Spam is a real issue.

That said, Concourse is clear about not focusing on the more selective places. Instead, it steers students toward the more accessible places that are willing to pay to be listed. So the convenience of avoiding retyping a transcript a half dozen times is likely moot; the places that make students do that are generally not the ones in the target market.

Although the article doesn’t spell it out, Concourse seems like a response to the shift in the market over the last decade or so. Now that many colleges have experienced significant enrollment declines, prospective students are (potentially) in the driver’s seat. When enrollments were peaking, colleges could wait for students to come to them. Now, outside of the name-brand places, that’s not true. So Concourse is taking the opportunity to bring colleges to students.

The exclusion of community colleges bothers me, both for the obvious reasons and because in many cases, a community college is the best option. I’m also concerned about the pay to play model, though one could easily argue that the status quo is effectively pay to play, too. Depending on how popular Concourse (or a similar platform) gets, it could jack up its rates for colleges with the implied threat that if colleges don’t pony up, their enrollment will suffer. The middleman’s incentives are separate and distinct from both the colleges’ and the students’. If it becomes powerful enough, it could extract significant rents to the detriment of all. The imperative to turn ever-growing profits could incentivize some pretty predatory behavior over time.

Still, I have to admit being fascinated. Market power has shifted to the point that there may be room for something like this. If it’s run ethically, it could help some students who don’t know the higher ed world very well to discover options they didn’t know they had. At least for me, the jury remains out.

*The NFL metaphor seems like it could go farther. “We’ll trade you two business majors for a comp sci major and a third-round draft pick.” “I was the student to be named later…”

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