Freeport service hopes to be a college matchmaker

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FREEPORT — As application dates near and prospective college students cram for their placements tests and sweat over school choices, they could find their perfect college match online.

Or not.

Much like the popular dating sites, and eHarmony, a Freeport-based online college counseling service that started in 2011 hopes to connect students with their soul-mate college.

“It’s modeled a little bit like eHarmony and a little bit like Pandora,” said Betsy Peters, founder and president of PossibilityU. “It bumps up against a government database and the database of colleges and will come back with what are the closest schools to the fit and feel for the student, as well as, academic interests.”

The search gives students a list of colleges that most closely match their preferred schools based on 78 social, academic and financial characteristics. It then provides the likelihood the student will get into that school based on academic performance and test scores, while also including the chance of getting financial aid from that school.

“What is unique and where we’re coming from is looking at it in a student-centric view, with a usable interface,” Peters said. “It’s not to take away from the guidance counselor, it’s so that one-on-one can be that much more helpful.”

The program also gives students and families access to videos that discuss strategies and techniques for things like essay writing and maximizing potential financial aid.

PossibilityU isn’t free, with costs ranging from $20 for a two-day pass on the website to $49 for a monthly fee and $250 for 12 months of the service.

But not everyone thinks these types of services are necessary for students to get into the college they want.

Gary Canter, a guidance counselor who owns College Placement Services in Portland, said although these services can be helpful, he doesn’t recommend paying for them or relying on them to find the right college.

“There’s no reason for any person to be paying for this because it should be free, there’s so many (guidance services) that don’t require payment,” he said. “There’s  so much misinformation and misunderstanding out there that the market is filled with frauds and charlatans. What a good independent consultant should do, and I consider myself one, is exactly what a good guidance counselor should do, which is to teach students and families out there to use the services that are free.”

Canter charges $250 for four, 90-minute sessions. If the families want to continue using his services, they’ll pay $1,200 for a year. As the sole worker in his business, he also limits the number of clients he takes to 50 to maintain personal relationships, he said.

Canter said the difference between online services and his service is that he tells people “nobody has the answer.”

“The videos say, ‘we have the answer if you give me $250,'” he said. “It’s the kid who’s got to do it. The college admission process is neither fair nor predictable.”

Yamrouth High School guidance counselor Beth Doane said the school uses a combination of online and one-on-one counseling, but neither are totally sufficient.

“The best match is getting on the campus themselves,” she said. “We don’t focus so much on what do you want to major in; it’s the fit. ‘Do I see myself on this campus, do I see similar students, based on their offerings, their size and the subjects I’m interested in?'”

Doane said being on the right campus is important because if a student decides to change majors, they don’t have to transfer schools, cutting down on the potential for extended graduation time and costs.

The supplementary services for college counseling are not new, she said.

“Before the computer, we were digging out the big books,” she said. “What this has done is kind of refine the process, but it’s how you use the information that’s important. The human factor comes in with the difficulty of getting into the schools. We’re making sure they are developing lists that have schools where they can be successful. … There definitely has to be a combination and students meeting with counselors who are in the trenches with the admissions departments is important.”

Peters agrees, and said the purpose of PossibilityU is more about discovery, than matching.

“Nothing about our program is to say that digital means is going to solve this problem,” she said. “It’s about, how can we remove a lot the grunt work and give some good suggestions? It’s a serendipitous process no questions about it. By no means do we think we can come up with a silver bullet for a recommendation.”

In addition to being a tool for at-home use by students and parents, Peters said PossibilityU works with nine schools in Maine, New York, Massachusetts and California. Counselors at the schools can see the progress of the students and assign work to help them navigate the process, she said.

Despite being a guide and a helper, Canter said no service or counselor can find the right school for a student.

“There are dating services that say they have scientific tools, but most people acknowledge that it’s kind of luck and pluck,” he said. “Your kid’s got to decide. There are no secrets; it’s an inexact science.”

Doane said the most important thing to remember is to maintain communication.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there and having students, parents and the school work closely together is the key to all this,” she said.

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.