Scattered Class

When Stephen M. Smith, co-founder of the college-planning software company Naviance, thinks back two decades to his late-high-school years, he conjures two distinct images: one, his parents badgering him to apply to Cornell; and two, butting up against a barrage of college application deadlines and scrambling through rural Putnam County in search of the nearest FedEx box.

Smith ended up at Cornell; his family members (many of whom are educators) ended up satisfied—until he bucked their wish that he not venture into education. After a stint working for Peterson's guidebooks, Smith founded Naviance with two partners in 2002. Four years later, the software is used in 44 states and 25 countries. The majority of New York City–area high schools subscribe; some 1.3 million high school students have logged on, according to Carol Wasden, the company's director of academic outreach.

By fall of 2006, when paired with online forms from the nonprofit Common Application, Smith's software will be helping to make the FedEx dash obsolete for students applying to any of 300 U.S. colleges that accept complete online applications. While Common Application picks up the labor of student-to-university form transfers—submitting test scores, essays, and recommendation letters—Naviance does much of the pre-app dirty work for guidance counselors. For this reason, its popularity is growing—but it could have profound effects on what kind of students apply to which schools.

Smith's company sells a software package called Counselor's Office to high schools for around $900 per year. The Web-based program logs test scores, grades, extracurriculars, and an array of personal information about each student (notes by and for exclusive use by the counselor might read, "parents divorced, messy" or "can't afford private colleges"). The guidance counselor can call the data up and track the student's entire admissions process. What's more, Naviance plugs in a student's test scores and GPA, plots them on a scattergram representing nearly any higher-education institution (regardless of if it accepts Common Application), and lets the user determine if it's worthwhile for the student to write that Princeton application essay. "Now a student can say, 'OK, I go to Midland High School in the Bronx. How many students like me have gotten in?' " Smith says.

Since Thomas Downey High School in Modesto, California, began subscribing to Naviance six years ago (when it was in prototype form), college counselor Barbara Liese says she's avoided countless awkward situations. "I used to have to say, when a student with a 2.5 [GPA] would tell me they wanted to go to Stanford, 'I just don't think that's reasonable.' It would offend both students and parents," Liese says. Equipped with Naviance, she pulls up the student's data, enters "Stanford" and clicks "graph." A scattergram is born. "Now they look at the graph and understand they'd better come up with other options."

"I hope it's not being used to replace us," jokes Bob MacLellan, director of college counseling at the Pingry School in Martinsville, New Jersey. "With any tool, there's necessary counseling that goes with it."

In Modesto, guidance counselors have opened up access to Naviance's college searches and student statistics to its 15,000-some high schoolers and their parents through a subprogram called Family Connection. It's a scaled-down, limited-access version of Counselor's Office and includes the beloved scattergrams, with their axes of GPA and SAT, green cubes for accepted students, and a red circle for the student in question.

Amy Sutherland, a 2005 Thomas Downey grad, began using Naviance as a portal through which to e-mail her guidance counselor. Soon, she got hooked on the scattergram feature.

"Sometimes if I had nothing better to do and I was searching the Web, I would log on," she says. "Every so often, it would be interesting just to see where you fell on the graph, even if you weren't applying to a school."

The worry is that students will be able to graph with such accuracy their chances of admission that they will limit themselves to only the coziest fits for their test scores, grades, and other factors, such as varsity sports skills or family legacy—factors also accounted for in Naviance's graphs.

Sutherland's red circle reflected her strong standing, falling mostly in the graphs' upper-right corner. But on her scattergrams for most of the 11 colleges she applied to, her dot was alone. None of her peers had applied to Harvard, Princeton, or the University of Pennsylvania in the past two years.

So Sutherland reverted to a pre-Naviance technique: She visited Liese in the guidance office. She applied to Harvard, mostly online, and got in.

"I still logged 20 or 30 hours on Naviance, though," Sutherland says. "I won't deny that."

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