The College Puzzle Blog
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Dr. Michael W. Kirst

Michael W. Kirst is Professor Emeritus of Education and Business Administration at Stanford University since 1969.
Dr. Kirst received his Ph.D. in political economy and government from Harvard. Before joining the Stanford University faculty, Dr. Kirst held several positions with the federal government, including Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Manpower, Employment and Poverty. He was a former president of the California State Board of Education. His book From High School to College with Andrea Venezia was published by Jossey Bass in 2004.

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My blog discusses the important and complex subjects of college completion, college success, student risk factors (for failing), college readiness, and academic preparation. I will explore the pieces of the college puzzle that heavily influence, if not determine, college success rates.

Search Engines May Hinder College Success (Part 3 in a Series)

Howard Block writes equity research on education companies for Banc of America Securities. He is one of my former PhD students. Block’s prior work under me has lent him a somewhat unique perspective on education equities. He recently wrote a lengthy report on the dangerous combination of search advertising and college admission. Its theme dovetails quite nicely with my work on K16. I have been referencing Block’s report in earlier posts. This entry references his report again.

Take, for example, what happens if one uses Google to query -- “best college for me”. The top sponsored link is Find A College. If you would click through the link, you’d be faced with a full-page advertisement for the University of Phoenix. This seems to be suggesting that the University of Phoenix is the best college for me. That is a wonderful endorsement for UOP.

Or, you may be tempted by the name of the third sponsored link - COURSE ADVISOR (“Your Source for Education and Training”). This name sounds potentially trustworthy. By the way, according to the copy in the ad, “some of the Leading Institutions You Can Reach through CourseAdvisor” are: the University of Phoenix, Capella University, Johns Hopkins University, Strayer University, University of Maryland, American InterContinental University (AIU), Liberty University, Westwood College, Colorado Technical University, and California Medical Institute.

With how many of these “leading institutions” are you familiar? And, of course, Block was not able to get CourseAdvisor to suggest Johns Hopkins, despite searching for on-ground engineering programs located near its campus.

As you select programs of interest, Course Advisor serves up schools. For example, if you select ‘Business & Management”, Course Advisor replies with “We found appropriate programs at The University of Phoenix”. Block ran a query for on-ground Science, Math, and Engineering programs for recent high school grads, using a Baltimore, MD zip code. Much to his surprise, he was told that no campuses in the area matched his interests. Instead, the site suggested the online program at ITT Technical Institute. So much for attending Johns Hopkins.

One could argue that the answers served by search engines are, at best, misleading and, at worst, unethical. A trusting, albeit naïve, consumer should not arbitrarily accept any of the schools listed above as “leading institutions”.

We agree that there are dangerous financial and social consequences of an increasing reliance on search engines to answer important questions like – should I go to college? The economic consequences for Block’s companies are understood – excessive dropout rates and significant declines in profitability.

And, the increasing use of bounty hunters promises to exacerbate the problem of dropouts. Bounty programs attract a growing number of publishers by doling out money for leads. Publishers can earn up to $100 for delivering leads to companies – such as University of Phoenix – which are in need of students.

The University of Phoenix will pay hefty premiums because of the perceived lifetime value of the customer. Of course, most of the leads prove worthless at or near inception – i.e. the lead may be spurious or during the first quarter of college when the student drops out.

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