Big Data in College Admissions

Admission Planning student working hard at Whitman College

Admission Planning student working hard at Whitman College


The impact of big data -- a collection of large and complex information which because of its size can reveal correlations otherwise undetectable -- is being felt in the college application process.

NPR’s Marketplace offers a good introduction to this emerging phenomenon in “How College Applications Change in the Era of Big Data.”

The first broadly used application of big data is identification of students’ college preferences.  “Yield,” or the percentage of students who accept an offer of admission, is important to colleges. This is because “Yield” is one of the components factored into US News’ college ranking lists. The best way to predict yield is to understand how strongly a student favors a college. 

How can a college discern their favorability with a student? By knowing the order in which the student lists colleges on financial aid applications.

When a student submits the FAFSA to colleges, he or she must enter the name of each school to receive the information. The order in which they enter that information is a likely indication of their preferences among colleges. 

How can a college improve its “Yield?” By identifying and disproportionately admitting students who have already identified their top choices, even if those choices are not readily clear to the student. Colleges can reasonably anticipate that those students are more likely to accept admission.

What does this mean for you? Make your financial aid application part of your college application itself, and list your favorite schools at the top of your financial aid application. And keep an eye on future news stories on colleges’ use of big data.