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Make Them Pay: College Admissions vs. Corporate Recruiting

Posted by Colin Kingsbury

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Feb 23, 2007 11:55:00 AM

In my previous post I stated that "The notion that jobseekers should get everything for free is quaint, infantilizing, and damaging." In the past I've talked about similarities to online dating and eBay, but in this post I want to visit the alternate universe of college "recruiting," where admissions officers approach many of the same problems from very different directions.

Pay to Play
The first thing in college admissions that you notice is that every application comes with a handy form to attach a check, or you can apply online with a credit card. My alma mater charges $70 for the privilege this year, and between SATs and whatnot, it's pretty easy to spend $1000 or more on the process with no guaranteed outcome.

Here's a nice chart showing last year's pipeline. With 15,000 applications, there's around a million dollars coming in to help offset the cost of printing glossy brochures. In the context of an annual budget well into the hundreds of millions, that's not big money, but it's not noise, either.

Ahoy, polloi!
Admissions in college is to some extent what a sales department is to a company, since (almost) every doe-eyed freshman represents four years of tuition. But somewhat like recruiting, the job is also to keep customers out. In Tufts' case, around 75% of people who were willing to fork over a hundred thousand or more were told to have a nice life. And unlike corporate recruiting, there really are no second chances. Sure, you get transfers and whatnot, but the classic undergraduate experience is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. And that in a sense frees colleges, because rejection is pretty much permanent.

Graduation Rates and Success
I haven't looked closely enough to say for sure, but my gut sense is that in terms of the most basic metrics, colleges do far better than companies when recruiting new blood. It's hardly a perfect comparison, but colleges do care about underperforming students, and no matter how well you pay your tuition, if you fail systematically, they will broom you out. Likewise, students are a lot more reluctant to leave when things get bad. Still, when a college admits someone, they often do so with a >90% expectation that person will perform reasonably over the next four years. I wonder how many companies can say the same over even 18-24 months?

Assessment: a World of Difference
When it comes to pre-decision assessment, colleges make companies look like the amateurs most of them are. Depending on how you look at it, the SAT and ACT tests are either a necessary evil, or just plain evil. Leaving aside the controversy, standardized tests are extremely effective at predicting 4-year GPAs when applied correctly, and are heavily used by employers as well.

One reason for the effectiveness of the SAT/ACT tests is their market penetration. Because these two tests are used universally, year after year, there is a great baseline of data for everyone from admissions officers to test designers to work with. Aside from Myers-Briggs and the MMPI (both of which are fraught with legal complexities in their use), there are relatively few "gold standard" tests used by HR. The last time I looked at the space, it seemed like there were thousands of tests available from hundreds of vendors.

There is no question that generally speaking, colleges are looking for a more consistent and easily-defined pedigree than companies. But the business model also leads inherently to fragmentation. In software engineering, for instance, there are hundreds of tests available, many very narrowly focused on specific languages or products. In my experience managing engineers and consultants, I never saw a smart person fail because they couldn't learn a new set of tools quickly enough, but I saw many marginal people fail because they had memorized the words to the song but couldn't tell you what it meant. 

The SAT works well whether the applicant goes on to major in dance or chemical engineering because it exercises basic engines of reasoning that apply across many disciplines. 

What College Admissions Isn't
In a candidate-pays world, I suspect we would see a very limited number of assessments rise to the top. Because candidates would pay to take them, companies would have data on all or most applicants, and not just those biased through the initial screening, the validity of which few bother to consider.

Contrary to those who see this as a crueler world, I think greater use of fundamental testing would expand employment opportunity. In talking about how college admissions compare to corporate recruiting, it's worth noting how much less it relies on networks and referrals. 

And it is not because such networks do not exist. A generation ago, going to a New England prep school gave you a better-than-even chance of getting into at least one of the Ivies, and two generations back it wasn't even debated. While I have nothing but good things to say about where I went to high school, even by my time the edge was long gone. Networks may give you more, but I suspect it will be mostly of the same old, same old.