As colleges become more competitive, a young entrepreneur taps into crowdsourcing to help students find the right fit
Author ADAM BAER Illustration Alex Nabaum
ONE DAY LAST FALL, “D,” an Asian-American high school student, logged on to the college review website Unigo, which lets visitors buy video chat sessions with college students and adult “counselors.” Her questions were basic. “What should I know about the Ivies?” she asked. A counselor answered: “I think sometimes they’re a little bit overrated, and I know that in a lot of cultures, there’s a big focus on Ivy League schools.” In another chat, D asked a college student about the typical perception of Northwestern. His answer: “Maybe, like, upper-middle-class, and, I don’t know … like, the dating scene is kinda bad?”
These are just two of a vast number of exchanges that are happening on Unigo, and while the individual answers may not be definitive (or even particularly coherent), taken together they’re meant to provide a fuller, more candid and arguably more useful picture of life at various U.S. colleges than traditional rankings can. Right now, Unigo receives a million unique visitors a month and expects to report seven-figure earnings this year. The website has also attracted glowing reviews from the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. It is, as one high schooler puts it, “the Consumer Reports of colleges” — only for the wiki age.
Unigo was founded in 2008 by Jordan Goldman, now 29, a native of Staten Island, N.Y., and happy graduate of Wesleyan University. The fast-talking son of a public school teacher, Goldman says he lucked out in selecting his college — “I really didn’t have the right amount of info to make that choice” — but knew others who weren’t as fortunate. “A couple of my [Wesleyan] classmates transferred. One who had grown up in California said the winters were brutal, and he got seasonal depression. It would have helped him to know what someone from California thought about college on the East Coast. Another transferred because the African-American community at Wesleyan wasn’t what she had hoped.” In fact, Goldman says, quoting from the New York Times, one in three U.S. college students winds up transferring. “That’s several million students per year,” he says. “The cost is tremendous.”
Goldman’s concerns about informed college choice go back to his high school days, when he attended a large public school that had just one college counselor for every 500 students. Between that and traditional university guidebooks — which delivered little more than a short summary of each school — he was dissatisfied. So, after Googling “book proposal,” the 18-year-old Goldman spent a weekend writing a pitch for a crowdsourced college review book, written by students for students. He then sent the proposal to five publishers, sans literary agent, and landed a deal with Penguin. The resulting guidebook came out annually, in five updated versions, as Goldman made his way through college.
By graduation, however, Goldman was beginning to feel a little constrained by the book format, so he ended his publishing contract and set out to re-create the project online. For insight into what to do next, he emailed dozens of students and then perused his college’s alumni database, filtering search results for graduates who worked in finance in New York and were at least 10 years older than he was. “I took 50 people to coffee and asked for advice,” Goldman says. “After that, a few started to invest, and I hacked together a site.”
Today, Unigo has about 15 employees, mostly 20-somethings, and provides on-demand viewpoints for all kinds of students, including those with special needs, cultural concerns and specific academic passions. Sessions run from $30 for 30 minutes with a student to $100 for an hour with an adult counselor (all experts are vetted by Unigo, and get a cut of the fee). Unigo’s profits come from fees, advertising and syndicating content.
In just a few short years, Goldman has nearly driven traditional college guidebooks into obsolescence. Drawing upon content created by students and counselors, his company provides all school reviews for U.S. News & World Report‘s annual college rankings as well as for the magazine’s website; releases an annual 100-page college guide with USA Today; and syndicates columns to the Huffington Post and Seventeen magazine. And after garnering a $1.6 million investment from McGraw-Hill Education, Unigo powers all of the publishing giant’s college reviews. (The two companies have also launched a full-semester high school course taught nationwide that focuses on “college and career readiness.”)
While the cost of using Unigo’s website can add up, Goldman believes the service is well worth it for students who aren’t getting what they need from traditional rankings or alumni interviews. “We tapped into the zeitgeist by saying to college students, ‘You define your school,’” he says. “People choose colleges for the wrong reasons: because they’re highly ranked or pretty. This is one of the biggest investments of their life. Pretty quickly the scenery fades away.”
ADAM BAER will gladly tutor you on how to write a winning college essay, but he charges much more than $100 an hour.
“Brown gets its reputation as the ‘weird Ivy’ due partially to its open curriculum [students can take any class they want] and progressive grading system. … ‘Interested and engaged students foster deeper, more involved discussions and, in my opinion, an overall more fulfilling academic experience,’ says Stephanie, an English major. ‘[It's] learning for its own sake, not getting a job.’”
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Brigham Young University
“The influence of Mormon culture on the school is impossible to avoid, but considering that 98 percent of the student body has ties to the LDS Church, this is generally seen as a positive thing. … Students here seem unanimous about their praise for the school. ‘It’s a fantastic school for the price. Very inexpensive for the education offered,’ says Josh, a communications major.”
California Institute of Technology
“The average Caltech student can discuss Stephen Hawking’s books, recite pi to 10 decimals, and talk about Schrödinger’s cat — for fun. … ‘Students collaborate on homework and there is no competition, which is wonderful,’ says Marybeth, a physics major. ‘No spiting, no envy. We are smart enough to realize that there’s no point. … The work is so hard it simply cannot be completed alone.’”
“With a storied history, bustling sports culture and more than 50 colleges in [close proximity], Boston is one of the most exciting places in the country to be a student. … Since BU does not have a traditional campus like nearby Northeastern or Harvard, the city is a major part of every student’s day-to-day life. … Sarah, an international relations student, says, ‘Boston is one of the best things about BU.’”