Case Study: College Confidential

I’ve argued:

When companies spend less on community, there’s rarely immediate feedback other than cost savings. This leads to a false sense that a community team reduction leads a more efficient team.

It’s a false impression because community work molds the culture of a site. Actions I take today might not come to fruition for months or even years. That dynamic doesn’t mesh well with results-oriented businesses that naively assume direct cause and effect. In that environment, only the most basic tasks (usually involving moderation) survive.

College Confidential’s culture in 2022

So let’s look at a case when a community team was given space to improve a culture. I’m talking about my little team at College Confidential.[1] To give you an idea of where we started, take a look at a representative comment on the ApplyingToCollege Subreddit:

Ugh the parents on College Confidential are the worst. They’ll say things like:

My D got her SAT score back… it was a 1560. My husband and I were very disappointed. She’s always excelled academically, and this was a step in the wrong direction. Is grounding her for 4 weeks an appropriate punishment, or is that too lenient?

and then wonder why their children have anxiety and hate their parents once they’re adults.

I can see College Confidential in this description. But it’s done by a caricaturist rather than a photographer. It’s the sort of description you might get from a visitor to a popular destination. My wife and I were invited to a wedding in Italy so we decided to make it a vacation. The first half of the trip we gawked at all the amazing art, architecture and antiquity as tourists. I would have said Italians are reserved and slightly suspicious of strangers.

Then we got the the wedding. It was a completely different story. Everyone was incredibly gracious and generous. Whatever you imagine when I say “Italian wedding”, this was so much better.

The difference, of course, is that Italians who deal with tourists every day see some of the worst impulses of humanity and they have to assume everyone who visits will try to game the system. The Italians at the wedding treated us like family because we were their guests. It wasn’t just a wedding we’d been invited to, but a culture.

When people come to a new community, such as College Confidential, they arrive as tourists. They can’t easily tell how regulars behave because they only see a slice of the site’s culture. In this case there’s a good chance the Reddit commenter was seeing, not regular members, but parents who are also new to College Confidential. The tell for me is that CC[2] regulars usually have children in college or beyond. Most of the people asking about high-school-aged children are new to the site.

Still, these comments indicated a problem with the way CC culture was presented if nothing else. The tourist effect has left a lot of CC regulars cynical about the people who visit the site. They have no qualms telling students that excellent grades, test scores, extracurriculars and essays might not be enough to get into elite schools. It rubs people the wrong way to hear that.

Another comment in the same thread:

I got some good advice there once, ngl. Like really good advice in my dms over there and everythang

That was almost 2 yrs ago, though. Hmm now they make you register to even lurk, which is dumb. There was a lot of helpful info tho

Even with a positive start to this comment, it turns negative in the second paragraph. The registration gate was real. It was set up in the year I was away from CC and getting rid of it was a top priority for me. We found out later that high school counselors stopped sending students to CC because they thought it had switched to a paid service. In the long run registrations didn’t buy us nearly as much as people had hoped.

The positive bit has a troubling aspect too. This visitor got “really good advice” in private messages, not public threads. I’m glad they got the help they needed, but it would have been helpful if that help had been public so that others could benefit. Long-term members of CC often pull new users into private messages to give their best advice. It can be appropriate for essay feedback (to avoid the risk of being flagged for plagiarism) or when the advice touches on sensitive subjects. But it means visitors don’t see it and can’t know it exists.

Overall this is the profile of a mature community that’s seen it all. In public places, they are like an Italian security guard wary of tourists jumping the line and among friends, a gracious host.

College Confidential’s renewal

Recently I discovered a new thread about College Confidential on Reddit. I want to quote almost every comment because the vibe is so incredibly different. Here’s a favorite:

Well, depends on what you are looking for. Would you rather take advice from 16-18 year olds or parents that have been through the process and have stuck around to pass on some words of wisdom?

The target audience is very different. The parents forum is probably the best thing going related to college admissions in the US. Recently, they had a rolling AMA with a IB C-level exec. There is a woman who will read your essays for free and another whose wisdom related to financial aid is immense and yet another who knows so much about med school admissions.

That they can be a bit short with clueless teenagers is frankly not unwarranted.

So what happened? Honestly I don’t know, but I will take credit for a few things:

  1. I moved politics discussion to a private group. Social media taught us that expressing your political opinion is an affirmative duty. That’s cancer for a community. It’s especially hazardous for a community that basically believes all the same things. There’s even a term to describe the problem: the narcissism of small differences. By moving all that to a private forum, random visitors don’t get the impression that CC is a place for feuds over trivialities.
  2. I deemphasized the Parent Cafe for visitors. Within the Parent Forum (that the Reddit commenter praised) is the Parent Cafe which is an off-topic space for people who have been at CC for many years. While it’s a great place for people to connect with each other, it’s an odd introduction to the community. The Victorians used to have the concept of a drawing room where special guests could withdraw in order to have more private conversations. That architectural design might be outdated, but the concept of a place set aside for private conversation remains useful.
  3. Meanwhile, we set up a formal essay review system so that more people can participate. The actual reviews remain private, but the existence of the volunteers and the service they provide has become public knowledge.
  4. AMAs with members, including the one the commenter called out, have become a regular feature of the site. Beyond the immediate help people get from asking, these posts highlight the expertise of members who give free advice every day.

Obviously we did other things too, but these are the actions I can trace a clear line from our decisions to the sort of change we observe from the two reports on Reddit. I didn’t list the moderator elections because they didn’t have an impact I can trace directly. Indirectly the things we did on the site helped build trust, which has three basic ingredients:

  1. Demonstrated ability and willingness to handle problems.
  2. Communicating reciprocal trust of community members.
  3. Time.

College Confidential’s future

In my annual performance review I described last year as a time of stabilization for CC. It’s pretty much “mission accomplished” now. But there’s never appropriate laurels to rest in in the community business. In CC’s case, it’s business that needs to come next because it turned out we couldn’t support ourselves with direct partnerships. There’s value in a healthy community like CC, but the question is how to unlock it without damaging the community. Part of the solution was cutting costs[3] but that’s not sufficient.

The company is currently considering a subscription model, which seems like a reasonable thing to try. It’s not an easy sell for a site that’s been free (except for ads) since the beginning. But it’s not hard to imagine motivated parents getting a subscription to help their students manage college admissions.

  1. Specifically me and Sorin with support from Mike. ↩︎

  2. I’m going to start using the abbreviation of College Confidential to avoid having to type the full name each time. ↩︎

  3. Including my salary. I’m anticipating being back part time soon. ↩︎