May 23, 2011

College Advice that's Not Exactly Unbiased

It seems that everyone wants a piece of the college advising action. The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Forbes—virtually all the print media giants have dedicated well-paid staff to patrolling the college beat for tidbits of news and sources of advice.

But it’s not always too easy to discern the motivations behind all the media attention to the college admissions process, particularly when financial entanglements stand to bias information provided.

Take, for example, how the relationship between Hobsons and College Confidential has begun to have an impact on the nature of the reporting and advice provided by the site.

In recent years, College Confidential (CC), a wildly popular website dedicated to colleges and admissions, began the process of morphing from a global message board fueled by the angst of millions of college-bound students to a seemingly respectable source of college news, information, and advice.

Seeing a potential marketing niche, professional staff started churning out columns which attract a huge and loyal readership already driven to the site by the College Confidential online chat rooms.

But somewhere along the line, College Confidential drifted from being an unbiased source of expert advice to becoming the tool of a much larger and more profit-driven corporate conglomerate. It happened along about the time that Hobsons, a higher education marketing and enrollment management conglomerate, purchased the site.

Last week, CC’s “Ask the Dean” column addressed the issue of which form a student should use to apply to college.

“In days of yore (i.e., about a decade ago, maybe even a couple), 'The Dean' used to insist that a student who really wanted to attend a particular college should use that school’s own application instead of the Common App,” said The Dean with a cute smiley face. “But I’ve long since about-faced on that stance.”

Under the guise of discussing the importance of “demonstrated interest,” The Dean provides a thumbnail explanation lauding the status of the Common App in the application industry and freely calls out exclusive users like Princeton, Stanford, and Yale (note the absence of Harvard which has a long-standing policy of supporting market competition).

The Dean wants students to understand that colleges promise to honor the Common Application “as their own” and describes a situation in which The Dean once “blew the whistle” on a college which seemingly failed to uphold their promise.

In the end, The Dean advises, “In spite of some evidence that not all colleges fully honor their sacred vow to give equal treatment to the Common App, I typically don’t encourage students to use a college-specific application when the option exists.” And why might that be?

Maybe because the Common Application uses Hobsons application technology platform and is just as tied to the company as College Confidential.

Sadly, “The Dean” fails to disclose that both College Confidential and the Common Application have clear financial ties to Hobsons, which controls and patrols social media on behalf of both entities. The advice was hardly unbiased and should have come with one of those conflict-of-interest statements like what NBC usually provides when reporting on General Electric.

The lesson is clear that students and their families need to be smart consumers of information when it comes to college advice. Every now and then, a wolf slips by in sheep’s clothing.

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