Interview Week: Jordan Goldman, CEO of Unigo.com

Posted by Brad J. Ward | Posted in Free, Higher Education, Interview, Recruitment, Research, Technology, Thoughts, Web | Posted on 10-13-2008

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This week is special. Why? My birthday is on Thursday. That’s right, I turn 25 and cheaper car insurance is just around the corner (except for that speeding ticket I got last week…..). But you know how we do things here at SquaredPeg.com.  So keep your gift cards, animal balloons, and the keys to that Porsche.  Instead, here is my gift to you.  4 interviews with 4 people from all aspects of higher education.  And on Friday I’ll wrap it all up with some new projects to keep an eye on.

Today we’re going to kick off this 4-part series with an exclusive SquaredPeg.com interview with Jordan Goldman, CEO and founder of Unigo.com. Unigo is a new platform for college students to share reviews, photos, videos, documents, and more with students on their campus and across the country.

Alright, let’s get started.

SquaredPeg.com – Jordan, most people might not know it, but you’re no stranger to the Admissions. You were interviewed by the NY Times at 17 about the admissions process and later became subject of ‘The Gatekeepers’, a bestselling book.  You’ve also published two college guide books. What intrigues you so much about higher education admissions?

Jordan Goldman, CEO of Unigo.com

Jordan Goldman - I think … choosing what college you go to is an enormous decision.  It’s stressful, it’s incredibly expensive, in many cases entire families save for years and all chip in … and where you eventually go does shape you to an extent.  It helps teach you how to think, helps direct how you approach problems, helps define who you are and what you do with your life.

Up until very recently the best way to make this stressful, four-year, $50,000 to $250,000 decision was to buy a college guidebook.  And when I was 18, I came up with an idea to help make those guidebooks a little bit better – I created a series of 100% student-written college guidebooks, called Students’ Guide to Colleges’, that were published in a couple of editions from Penguin Books

About a year after I stopped doing Students’ Guide, I started thinking about the limitations of print guidebooks – each college only got a small number of pages, with no photos, no videos, no interactivity.  For a decision this important, that resource didn’t seem helpful enough.

High school students and parents needed more accurate, authentic, honest information.  And college students needed a place where they could really represent their college lives – if they loved their school, if they had issues with it, if they were someplace in-between.  The internet provided the opportunity to create an enormous, comprehensive and totally free resource that could help everyone.

I realize I’m going on a bit of a tangent here, on the very first question … but one of the things we were able to do with Unigo, that I think is pretty exciting, is that we strove to create something that was actually responsible and representative.  That we didn’t just sit back, open a review platform, and hope people came.

So what we did was, we hired an 18 person editorial team, and decided Unigo would initially cover 250 colleges.  We spent about 3 months researching every one of those colleges.  Then we hired interns on the ground, who really believed in what we were trying to accomplish and who helped corroborate our research.  For the next 5 months, we reached out to current students one by one, telling them we wanted to create this giant and honest resource and asking them to be a part of it.  We put in extra effort to ensure we received reviews from students from every major, extracurricular, gender, race, religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation and more … students who love their school, who have issues with it, or have mixed feelings.

In the end, at 250 colleges, more than 15,000 students contributed more than 35,000 pieces of content.  In some cases, a full 10% of the student body took part.  And the value of having that volume of reviews is, if we have 150 reviews of a college, you can search by a variety of criteria.  You can say, only show me reviews by English majors, or African American students, or politically right-wing students at a left-wing institution … so you can see a school from the eyes of someone who’s just like you, and interact with them.  And as we go forward, we still have our 18 person editorial team, as well as the ability to rate, star, comment on and flag all content throughout the site.

SP -  You graduated college in 2004 and I finished in 2005.  Isn’t it amazing how much things have changed since we went through the process? What are the biggest game changers, in your opinion?

JG - I really think the internet transformed – or has the ability to transform, is still in the process of transforming – the entire educational landscape.  So much more information is available than ever before, ideas can spread and be shared and worked on collaboratively to create all sorts of new things.  And much of it is made available for free!   So many traditional barriers to access have been torn down.  It’s really exciting.  This has really broad applications – Project Gutenberg, for example, making tens of thousands of books instantly available to everyone, or Wikipedia putting an enormous range of knowledge instantly at our fingertips – and, in the case of Unigo, it means prospective students who previously couldn’t afford to go on campus tours all across the country, who weren’t able to grab a current student by the arm and ask them questions – now they have a way to find an amazing range of authentic information right from their living rooms.  Prospective students have a way to interact with one another and ask each other questions about these schools.  And they have the ability to see each college from the perspective of someone just like them. Sure, Columbia is a great school.  But is it a great school for African American students?  What about students from California?  Is it the same experience for a wealthy student as it is for someone a bit less well-off?  How about a conservative student, or a gay student?  Those are questions Unigo can instantly help you find the answer to.  We want to move the focus away from overly broad rankings that don’t tell you much of anything, and over to “What’s the college that’s actually best for YOU?”

Also, for current students, it gives them a platform to represent their experiences.  Previously, if they loved their school, there was no real way to share that with the world.  And if they had an issue with their college, they could protest in front of the library, but that’s about it.  Unigo lets them create content about their college lives, and see what their classmates are saying.  It really allows a conversation to start, that’s beneficial to other current students, but also for the institution, to be open to legitimate peer review, to assess what students are actually experiencing and perhaps change for the better as a result.

SP - Unigo is currently featuring approximately 225 schools.  Are there plans to get all institutions on the site?

JG – Absolutely.  In the coming months, Unigo will be expanding to include nearly every school in the country.

SP - Unigo might possibly be the tipping point for user generated content about universities. As students find their voice and start to share it, how should universities react?

JG - I really do hope that universities will embrace the idea of Unigo, even if they’re a bit wary at first.  Not only is Unigo one of the largest sources of college information, we also take great efforts to be among the most responsible sources.  And the site is a perfect way for administrators to see what students think about their schools. By understanding the strengths and weaknesses and acting on the information they read, administrators can improve students’ experiences—and ultimately their schools’ reputations. A number of universities have already contacted us and are pretty excited about the platform.

SP - Admission Offices are currently at a crossroads between traditional methods and electronic recruitment.  How does Unigo help fill that gap, both for the student and the school?

JG – I think … in the old way of doing things, administrators traveled from state to state, from high school to high school, explaining their colleges’ missions and programs to prospective students.  Now, with sites like Unigo, any student can instantly access a world of information about what it’s really like to attend these schools, direct from the real experts – the students who attend them.  Any student can find out about schools that are right for them instantly, from their living rooms.  It takes a lot of the mystery and anxiety out of the process for high school students, and (hopefully) removes a lot of the leg work to increase awareness from college administrators.

SP - Last question. SAT and ACT as a predictor for college success…. Thoughts?

JG - The SAT and ACT can provide useful metrics, but they should always be viewed as part of a much larger package.  A student’s scores are only a small part of who they are and what they’re capable of, and should ideally be assessed in that light.

SP - Thanks for your time, Jordan, and keep up the great work!  If you haven’t checked out Unigo.com yet, what are you waiting for? Click the image below.

Unigo.com

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