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Datapalooza: How the Federal Government is Easing the College Process

According to a study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, an estimated one third of all college students will transfer at least once before graduating.

That is not particularly efficient.

I was applying for college myself about a decade ago. I basically knew where I wanted to go to school for years, applied there early, thankfully got in, and that was that. Literally as easy an application process as one could imagine (#humblebrag), and it was still an utter pain in the ass. The process was not unlike a part-time job, sucking up attention and energy on a daily basis, except hyper stressful (and within the context of being a 17-year old, no less). This time consumption, of course, comes at the very instant that said applicant is presumably trying to maximize the outcome of their academic and extra-curricular endeavors.

Now imagine having to do this again, except this time you are in the midst of a far more intensive university curriculum, you are far more likely to actually be employed and/or raising a child, and you are even more keenly focused on the quality of your production (what with the natural progression of the human psyche and all). Not to mention the likely additional hoops you will have to jump through in explaining the reasons for your departure, securing the necessary approvals, and validating yourself as a viable candidate for acceptance. This sounds completely miserable.

True, sometimes circumstances change, especially in four years time, and a transfer is a necessary part of your personal evolution: something that simply could not be avoided within the context of you being you. But for many a young scholar, the transfer can be avoided altogether by a smarter, more informed application process, nipping that transfer right in the bud.

If you knew the depth of your financial options - where it is that you might best benefit from scholarships or grants (and thereby reducing the pressure of outside employment); if you had a better grasp of what career trajectory you desire - what kinds of schools/disciplines/majors people with similar outcomes selected (and thereby providing you with a template for a curated roadmap); if you had a clearer sense of how you might transition to a school both culturally and socially - what the firsthand student experience is like for students of your profile (and thereby facilitating your eventual transition process); well I'm venturing to guess you'd have a far more likely chance of applying to a school, getting accepted, and enjoying a rewarding academic experience.

The good news is that the federal government, led by President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan, has come to understand that they can play a powerful role in facilitating such a reality. A couple weeks ago, I had the good fortune of attending Datapalooza, a conference held at the Ronald Reagan Center that highlighted the growing number of programs, websites, apps, and organizations that are helping to drive much needed change in the college application ecosystem. These innovative initiatives are working with the federal government to leverage national datasets in order to provide targeted help navigating the higher education landscape at scale. The goal is to provide all young students with access to a high quality education, and in order to accomplish this they must first be given access to the tools to learn about their options.

One of the most exciting and useful tools to present at the summit was CollegeAppMap.org, a site that literally guides a student through the application process with a curated set of app recommendations for each step. When you arrive at the homepage, you are first asked to select your grade level (9th through 12th, and then a "through college" option). Upon selecting your grade, you are then prompted with a number of options corresponding to your standing within the application process. For instance, a 9th grader can "Identify Obstacles & Make a plan," "Explore Careers," and "Target College Majors," and are supplied with links to various tools and apps that can help students track their goals alongside access to real world data to help drive smarter decisions. If said 9th grader seeks to "Choose a 4-Year Course Plan," they are presented links to tools called CollegeGo (an app using interactive games, videos, and search to present 25 steps for planning for college), KrED (a gamified website for schools and college access programs that motivates and rewards students for taking the proper action to prepare for college), and Logrado (a tool that connects students with mentors and provides missions targeted at fulfilling crucial steps toward college acceptance).

In all, the CollegeAppMap contains 30 steps linked to 19 websites, tools, and apps. The map begins with the student formulating a plan for her college experience and culminates with the student connecting with professionals in her desired career and beginning to plan for life after college, AKA the real world.

Datapalooza yielded a number of other valuable resources as well, many of which derive their value from the information gathered and presented at data.gov, the home of the U.S. Government's open data network that provides thousands of consumable datasets. These datasets include year-over-year enrollments, program completions, graduation rates, faculty and staff, finances, institutional prices, student financial aid, and oodles of other treasure troves of information. The federal government has recognized that while innovation often best thrives in an open market, it can play a significant role in facilitating the intelligence of innovation through its proprietary datasets. The deeper the level of information the government can provide and the easier it can make this data consumable and transferable (see: APIs), the more successful we can all become in understanding our options and making informed decisions along the way. This is exactly how the public sector and private sector should be working together within education, and it was extremely refreshing to be a part of.

Students must be informed consumers for the system to work with maximum efficiency. The open data movement - using government-collected statistics to increase educational outcomes and opportunities - is crucial the success of all parties involved (schools, students, parents, counselors, and even ultimately the employers down the road).

If you are interested in creating a particular dataset of your own, shoot an email to financedata@treasury.gov. They'd love to hear from you.

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