Netflix for University Selection?

An algorithm to help with university choice

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting report on a Netflix-like algorithm which is designed to help with selecting a university. A former admissions counsellor and now PhD student, Daniel Jarratt has been working on a tool which would help students find the right institution for them by focusing on the similarities in the choices they have already made and using this to highlight other possibilities.

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Mr. Jarratt … created an algorithm that could take several colleges and figure out how similar they are to one another and—more important—in what ways they are similar. Do they have a lower-than-average graduation rate? More than the average number of students living on the campus? Do a higher-than-average number of students study art or engineering?

Using that algorithm, he could explain what the students could not: what was it that a collection of colleges had in common. From there, Mr. Jarratt could highlight other institutions that shared some of the same attributes.

Mr. Jarratt’s algorithm is now an integral part of PossibilityU, a website that helps high-school students find the right college.

PossibilityU’s data-driven approach to college matching isn’t new, but Mr. Jarratt’s recommendation algorithm is unique. Rather than starting with a list of questions about what students are looking for, PossibilityU asks users to enter up to three colleges that they are interested in. It then spits out a list of 10 other, similar colleges to consider. A premium paid subscription allows students to compare an unlimited number of colleges and provides application deadlines and other advice.

It’s kind of like Netflix’s movie suggestions, says Mr. Jarratt, who studies recommender systems like those used by the movie service and by Amazon.

Do you like Valparaiso and the University of Minnesota? You might also like Marquette University and the University of Iowa, according to PossibilityU.

It all looks moderately interesting. Would a similar model work in the UK? Perhaps, although the range of choices is rather narrower than in the US. Nevertheless, there is certainly more than enough data out there to help this kind of approach.

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