Information Transparency

SIYUE PENG explores the
role of startups in increasing prospective students’ knowledge about US colleges.

The increasing interest among Chinese students in studying abroad is no longer news. In the early stages of this trend, both Chinese parents and students lacked reliable and comprehensive information about foreign higher education institutions. As a result, annual college rankings, provided by reputable media such as Forbes and US News, were the most significant, if not the most commonly used “official” references that distinguished among the 4,706 degree-granting institutions in the United States. Prospective Chinese students explore the United States with only limited available information about the college application process. To solve this information asymmetry, in recent years, some rising startups such as Amigo and IvySpace have been working on establishing an efficient online platform for information exchange between prospectives students and students currently studying abroad in the US. Their founders’ awareness of this issue and the motivation to improve the accessibility of information are beneficial for these prospective students.

It took no more than successfully sending a few students to highly ranked institutions for an early-bird consulting firm to acquire a local reputation, and simply airing well-designed advertisements quickly lent these firms authority among local students and parents.

While a considerable number of Chinese students who desire to study abroad choose to work with an education consulting agency, not all the available consulting agencies in the market are licensed or well-regulated. It took no more than successfully sending a few students to highly ranked institutions for an early-bird consulting firm to acquire a local reputation, and simply airing well-designed advertisements quickly lent these firms authority among local students and parents.

Over time, consulting service firms institutionalized themselves to accommodate the explosion of demand, prompting the companies to provide end-to-end application services for clients. Unsurprisingly, this reduced student involvement on their own applications, minimizing their own role in perhaps one of the most important decisions of their lives. “Those students are usually not as proud of their institutions as their American classmates because of their lack of involvement in the application process,” said Christopher Chau, the co-founder of Ivy Space. Furthermore, many Chinese students’ lack of attachment to their future colleges might reflect that the issue of information asymmetry still has not been resolved—often, their universities do not meet their initial expectations or imaginations.

In an era in which electronic business and information technology are influential, many start to form serious concerns about information asymmetry. Technological advancement has become one of the most effective and accessible ways to deal with it. A considerable number of websites have emerged that serve the students who decide to complete the application process on their own. Online forums also provide students and parents an opportunity to share information with many others in the same position.

However, article-based websites and online forums are not without drawbacks. For instance, communication is not always efficient since many users do not check these forums on a regular basis unless they are urgently waiting for a response. Moreover, information is not always reliable as sources are often unidentified. Consequently, a couple of entrepreneurs have decided to create applications on mobile devices to establish more efficient online platforms. Amigo and IvySpace are two of them.

“Amigo uses the latest mobile information technology and concepts to effectively change the information asymmetry, allowing the students with authentic experiences to help prospects students have a comprehensive understanding of their life in a foreign country.” The founder of Amigo, Lin Bo, defines Amigo as a bridge that connects students. It allows verified users to communicate immediately at an affordable cost. “Amigo does not necessarily intend to revolutionize or overturn this industry by any means. Because we believe that the structural optimization within an industry is a natural process, and all we want is to focus on gradually increasing the information transparency, which is our incentive of creating Amigo,” Xu Ke, the CTO of Amigo says. Sharing a similar incentive with Amigo, Christopher Chau agrees that promoting information transparency is crucial. In the interview, he claims that certain interest groups intentionally kept studying abroad in the United States at a distance from students and over-complicated the application process for their own benefits. Furthermore, Chau notes that, since Chinese parents are so eager and willing to provide better education for their children at all costs, they sometimes fail to recognize that the best judgment cannot be made without sufficient information from reliable sources.

With an increasing number of students studying and living in the United States, American education is no longer a distant dream exclusively for elite families or adventurous explorers. The accessibility of relevant information has improved through startups like Amigo and IvySpace. Though not yet nationally well-known, they indeed have built a tangible space for active information exchange, as well as have resolved information asymmetry to some extent.

Prestigious institutions in large Chinese cities have encouraged American universities to hold information sessions for prospective students. Through these opportunities, students and parents can more easily access information about American education and reach out to other, more experienced students. Unfortunately, however, this is not the case in many smaller cities. Many families in second-tier cities also need information, but they are more likely to seek help from agencies rather than from the educational institutions themselves. According to Joseph Luk, who referred to a survey conducted by the National Association for College Admission and Counseling in 2011, 60 percent of Chinese respondents answered that they used educational consultants when they applied to American colleges. Since having consultants does not always resolve information asymmetry, companies like Amigo and IvySpace have enormous potential to grow.

Does increasing access to information transparency translate to an increasing number of Chinese students in the US? Data from 2013–2014 suggests a relationship: total international student enrollment in the United States was 886,052, and 31 percent of them were from China. The percentage of students from China studying in America increases considerably every year. Students and parents feel more comfortable and confident about taking such a crucial step when they have more reliable information available. The determining factors of a prospective student’s experience in the US are not limited to his or her academics or institution’s rankings, but also include social life and cultural adjustment, which will greatly affect whether or not their journey is an enjoyable and meaningful experience. After all, the United States is a country that encourages the necessity of cultural inclusiveness and respect for diversity. With the increasing number of resources available to prospective students, especially through new online platforms, prospective students receive the benefit of having more access to more information to aid them in their college application process.

Siyue Peng is a sophomore studying Political Science and Economics at Davidson College. Contact him at sipeng@davidson.edu.

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