Big-Data & the Soon-to-Be College Coeds

So it's another year, another season of college/financial aid application madness here at my house. Oh what I wouldn't give for the ability to snap my fingers and have it all just magically done.

With one daughter in her freshman year and two more headed into theirs, I'm quite done with sorting through all of the college literature, remembering deadline dates, and coughing up personal financial data. Still, I must say, the thrill of seeing the kids get their acceptances never dies.

Lately, that's gotten tricky here, what with twins who have applied mostly to the same schools. Examining their college apps, admissions counselors would have to search for the nuances. Their GPAs are within a couple of tenths of each other, and their ACT scores a point apart. Their extracurricular activities pretty much match up one to one, and they share the same work history. And as a mom, not to mention a professional editor, I'd say each did a bang-up job on her essays, too. (And, no, I did not write them -- nor did we hire out for that, as many do these days.)

Here's the thing. One daughter is currently sitting on three acceptances, and has been for weeks now. The other has received one. She's not been turned down by the others but hasn't heard the "Yes, we'd love to have you here" from them, either -- the early acceptance notice periods haven't expired in either case. So what gives?

I could get all crazy and turn this into a numbers game. The one who has the acceptances has the lower ACT score and the slightly higher GPA, but with fewer honors classes. Does GPA factor in higher than ACT score? In one case, she submitted the application one day ahead of her sister. Does a day make a difference -- in weeks -- of getting an application processed? Or, did that higher ACT score bump my second daughter into a different acceptance category, one for which the schools are sorting out special scholarship potential?

That last one gets to the real heart of the matter for me. I'm fairly confident that where one gets accepted, the other one will, too. They are, after all, as identical on paper as they are in physical appearance. But what does this mean for us financially? One school has offered Daughter No. 1 a pleasantly surprising four-year merit scholarship, and another has put her into a priority queue for financial aid and merit awards, the deadline for which is today. So that doesn't look so great for Daughter No. 2 -- unless, as I imagine in my most wistful state -- it has really set her aside for something extra special.

It's difficult not to think about the data points I know about my daughters and to try gleaning insight from them. Then I put that in greater context and, well, my mind goes numb. Did Daughter No. 2's application get lost in the big-data sinkhole, never to surface again?

Colleges and universities, like their counterparts in the business and government worlds, do face a data glut. And while higher education as an industry is learning how to make better use of all the student data it has, it's not fully versed yet. I love this analogy from Brian Parish, president of IData, a higher ed technology consulting and software solutions firm. "It's interesting watching schools that have struggled with what you might call 'small data' for a long time now being told big-data is the answer. It can feel like giving a racecar to someone who has been riding a bicycle," he told me in a phone interview yesterday.

But enrollment is one area where schools are starting to see big-data help make a difference, he said. With more data, schools are able to better target potential students and cull through applicants. I'm not sure where the schools on my daughters' hit lists fall in their use of big-data here, but I do hope it turns out to their advantage. We'll know soon enough -- well, sort of!

And in the meantime, I'll be picking Parish's brains some more on how higher ed is using big-data today and the future outlook (did I mention I have an 11-year-old, too?). Parish will be joining next week for an e-chat on big-data in higher ed. Join us on Friday, December 14, at 2:00 p.m. ET as we talk about how big-data is coming into play in processes such as enrollment, course planning, and retention -- and the challenges therein. The e-chat will take place here.

Beth Schultz, Editor in Chief

Beth Schultz has more than two decades of experience as an IT writer and editor.  Most recently, she brought her expertise to bear writing thought-provoking editorial and marketing materials on a variety of technology topics for leading IT publications and industry players.  Previously, she oversaw multimedia content development, writing and editing for special feature packages at Network World. In particular, she focused on advanced IT technology and its impact on business users and in so doing became a thought leader on the revolutionary changes remaking the corporate datacenter and enterprise IT architecture. Beth has a keen ability to identify business and technology trends, developing expertise through in-depth analysis and early adopter case studies. Over the years, she has earned more than a dozen national and regional editorial excellence awards for special issues from American Business Media, American Society of Business Press Editors,, and others.

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Re: One more...
  • 12/14/2012 10:00:38 AM

mdpullan -- first off, welcome back! Haven't seen you in these parts lately. ;-)

Second, by the time your kids are of college age, yes, let's hope costs are on the reverse trend. I hold out hope there'll be some change even sooner than that, as my next in line is 11.

Re: One more...
  • 12/14/2012 2:50:27 AM

Hopefully, this will all be over soon with a decision to follow quickly thereafter. I wonder about such things when my own children are of age to attend college. Right now, they're still very young at only 4 and 6 years old, but with the cost of higher education, future education can't just be ignored. 

One more...
  • 12/13/2012 5:45:07 PM

And so the drama continues. Twin 1 has received another college acceptance letter in the mail today. Twin 2, who has also applied at the same school, has received no word. Again. Still in limbo at the other schools, too. Once all this is over, I'll have to do a little analytical investigating!

Re: Pick-a-Twin
  • 12/11/2012 9:02:16 AM

Ya... something like that

Re: Pick-a-Twin
  • 12/11/2012 7:22:59 AM

The joys of parenthood...

Re: Pick-a-Twin
  • 12/10/2012 2:32:53 PM

@callmebob, I'll definitely keep you posted. No news over the weekend ...

(And the decision on whether to attend the same school or not is still to come. They've not taken a firm stance one way or the other yet. And, frankly, the decision may come with who's accepted where and cost of attendance.)


  • 12/10/2012 2:27:11 PM

@Beth - I'm sure this would be an interesting analytics project if you weren't a parent with a personal stake in the outcome. Since you indicated that the twins match up closely in multiple categories and have applied to many of the same schools, I wonder if universities purposely compare siblings/family members and weigh them differently than unrelated applicants. Does the personal essay come into play and having different people reading and evaluating them affect the process and result?

The other question is whether Daughters 1 & 2 want to attend the same university or not. Keep us posted, we're all watching from the sidelines and rooting for them.

Re: College apps
  • 12/8/2012 11:13:36 AM

@Beth, I suppose your daughter is such an exceptional student that any school is glad to have her, and would give her a break or two for honest errors --- and the courage to admit to them. : ) 

Re: College apps
  • 12/8/2012 9:39:15 AM

@Broadway -- I should note, too, that this is not a small school, a major state university with a student population of around 52,000! 

Re: College apps
  • 12/7/2012 10:26:48 PM

@Beth, I am surprised that the college was so cool to your daughter. I have often heard of applications being trashed for minor mistakes simply because finding such an excuse makes the admissions officer's job easier and their stack of apps smaller.

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