Google Wants to Play a Bigger Role in Your College Search. …


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Google waded into the college-search process on Tuesday, announcing that it would elevate certain statistics about four-year colleges when people use the ubiquitous search engine to seek out information.

Here’s what that will look like in practice, Google says: Enter “University of Montana” into the search bar, and a prominent result will be a selection of statistics about the institution — its graduation rate and average cost after financial aid, among other things.

To get those stats, Google will draw from two favorite data troves of higher-ed researchers: the College Scorecard and the Education Department’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, known as Ipeds.

On a search-by-search basis, the change might seem relatively minor. Searches already amplify information on colleges’ acceptance rates and material drawn from their Wikipedia pages. But Google’s immense power means the shift could have real-world ripple effects for students and the colleges recruiting them.

“Colleges should realize that the first thing students see now when they search for a college is some data on outcomes, pricing, test scores,” said Robert Kelchen, a professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. “If students and families want the data, they can get it quickly.”

That doesn’t mean the federal data being scraped by Google is bulletproof, Kelchen said. Some institutions’ habits for reporting data to Ipeds are already sloppy, and Google could provide an extra incentive to “colleges maybe trying to fudge their numbers a bit.”

“Whenever I find errors in Ipeds, sometimes they make the college look good, sometimes they make the college look bad. But the U.S. News errors always seem to make the college look good,” Kelchen said, referring to erroneous data that colleges have given the publication’s all-important college rankings.

To ensure the integrity of its information, Kelchen proposed that the government audit 1 percent of colleges’ self-reported data each year — much as the Internal Revenue Service audits tax returns.

In the long run, there could be value in Google shedding more light on federal data, said John Katzman, chief executive of the Noodle Companies, which include a college-search site and a company that helps colleges put programs online. Katzman has been critical of inconsistencies among federal education-data sources.

“Anything that exposes Ipeds data to larger numbers of users will eventually help make that data better,” he said, “and that’s great.”

What’s in It for Google?

The College Scorecard was born of an Education Department effort to hold underperforming institutions accountable. But it would be a stretch, Katzman said, to credit Google for promoting accountability by surfacing the Scorecard data. For-profit colleges with underwhelming graduation rates and student-debt levels have been “some of Google’s largest advertisers” over the years, he said. “If Google really wanted to help solve the problem, they might limit advertising to the schools that had a better performance on the report card.”

Instead, the move seems designed to tie the college search and Google search more closely together. “I think it is another step toward them trying to be the one-stop source for everybody,” said Kelchen.

The announcement comes as both Facebook and LinkedIn have begun pressing to get more colleges to use their services for student recruiting, albeit not primarily in the undergraduate market that has been Google’s stronghold. Facebook, for example, is working to get colleges to do more with video advertising on mobile devices, focusing especially on colleges that serve adult undergraduate populations or offer master’s and professional degrees.

LinkedIn, meanwhile, actively promotes its half-billion-plus membership base as an asset to colleges in search of students. It, too, is focused chiefly on the postgraduate market, after a brief foray into the world of undergraduate admissions. (In 2014 it began a college-ranking site and related services, but it shuttered most of those features two years later.)

Google’s focus now is on four-year undergraduate colleges, but Chip Paucek, chief executive at 2U, a company that works with colleges to create and market online programs, expects the search giant will eventually expand a form of this service to graduate-level programs. “This is Google being Google,” he said.

But he said the two social-networking sites would continue to be important because of their different approaches; LinkedIn’s college marketing takes advantage of what the company can compile from members’ professional and academic data on the site, while Facebook aims to optimize the social component. “All three platforms are super-relevant,” said Paucek.

What’s in It for Students?

Whether the information Google surfaces is helpful to parents and prospective college students remains to be seen.

“Information is scattered across the internet,” Google wrote in its announcement, “and it’s not always clear what factors to consider and which pieces of information will be most useful for your decision.”

Katzman, for one, doesn’t think the additional data will do much to change the process of sifting through that information. Google is “always trying to make searches more semantically smart,” he said, but “applying to college is not like buying a toaster.” It’s a decision that is made over weeks or months through a complex process informed by financial-aid promises, standardized-test scores, and insight from counselors or other advisers.

Putting information on finance and outcomes in context is more relevant than simply listing that information, he said. And students already have more interesting places to go for that context, he added, such as College Confidential, where they can see what students are saying about a college, or Niche, where they can view rankings and read deep write-ups, or U.S. News, where they can browse the most widely recognized rankings.

“It’s better to have that information than not,” said Katzman. But the number of students who will end up at a college that’s a better fit for them because of new data in a Google search? “Zero,” he predicted.

Dan Bauman is a reporter who investigates and writes about all things data in higher education. Tweet him at @danbauman77 or email him at [email protected]

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at [email protected]

Andy Thomason is a senior editor at The Chronicle. Send him a tip at [email protected] And follow him on Twitter @arthomason.

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