Every year, thousands of students enroll at thousands of colleges in the US. Is the outcome of that process efficient? Or could students and colleges be matched in a way that makes everyone better off? Companies like ConnectEDU are building their business model on the answer being “Yes.” A recent article in the Washington Monthly ponders the future of the college admissions scene.

In 2009, the former Princeton University president William Bowen documented the pervasive problem of “under-matching” in higher education. Bowen examined a group of North Carolina high school students from across the income spectrum whose grades and SAT scores were good enough to get them into a top-tier university. Seventy-three percent of wealthy high performing students actually enrolled in such a university.

Only 41 percent of low-income high-performing students did the same. The under-matching rates for minority students and those whose parents never graduated from high school were similarly low. And under-matched students were significantly less likely to earn a college degree.

There are a number of reasons for this. Bad high schools usually lack the guidance counselors and visiting college recruiters that well-off students take for granted. Parents who haven’t been to college can’t use their experience to guide their children toward higher education. Plus, elite colleges are often very expensive and are becoming more so every year.

But there’s another culprit at work: the college admissions process itself. If you want to buy shares of stock, bid on antiques, search for a job, or look for Mr. Right in 2011, you will likely go to a marketplace driven by the electronic exchange of information. There will be quick, flexible transactions, broad access to buyers and sellers, and powerful algorithms that efficiently match supply and demand. If you are a student looking for a college or a college looking for a student, by contrast, you’re stuck with an archaic, over-complicated, under-managed system that still relies on things like bus trips to airport convention centers and the physical transmission of pieces of paper. That’s why under-matching is so pervasive. The higher education market only works for students who have the resources to overcome its terrible inefficiency. Everyone else is out of luck.

Though the article is a bit too long and meandering, it raises some very interesting questions, and it is not difficult to believe that the college admissions process is inefficient. How would it impact colleges if this process became much more efficient, and if information became much more easily available and usable? Would colleges become much more responsive to consumer needs?

The Washington Monthly also publishes rankings of colleges, based on three (equally weighted) criteria: “Social Mobility (recruiting and graduating low-income students), Research (producing cutting-edge scholarship and PhDs), and Service (encouraging students to give something back to their country).” Lawrence University comes in 99th overall (well below Beloit and Ripon), but ranks 46th in producing PhD’s (well ahead of Beloit and Ripon).

HT: Market Design