One of College Confidential’s Founders Says Site ‘Turned Sour’

In an article this week, I describe the culture of College Confidential, the Web site many people love and/or hate. So far I’ve received several e-mails from readers who complained that my story was too negative (one anonymous soul informed me that my alma mater is a “joke”). Other readers suggested that the story wasn’t harsh enough.

Yet the most interesting response came from David Hawsey, a longtime admissions professional who helped create College Confidential in 2001. “It was founded for a different reason than people may think,” he wrote.

Mr. Hawsey, now vice president for enrollment management at Emory & Henry College, in Virginia, described his motivations for starting the free Web site: to educate the public about how colleges recruit and select applicants, and determine financial-aid awards. Back then, as the site’s primary producer of content, including responses to the popular “Ask the Dean” column, he sought to provide objective information about the practices admissions officers understood but many families did not. In short, he hadn’t hoped to create a forum for handicapping a student’s odds of being admitted to the nation’s most-selective colleges.

As College Confidential’s popularity grew, and the message boards became a hot spot to trade advice, Mr. Hawsey saw a shift. “To me, the site turned sour with all the ‘my college is better than yours’ trolling and a specific lack of professional advice outside my own experience,” he wrote.

In an interview this afternoon, Mr. Hawsey, who stepped away from the Web site years ago, reflected further on the online community he helped create. “When I look at it today, I think, My God, what a monster,” he says. “There’s all this ‘mine is bigger than yours’ stuff. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of very good comments on the message boards, but they got way, way out of control.”

How? “They became overburdened with Ivy lust,” Mr. Hawsey says. “There’s not enough information that truly answers the question, What’s the right school for me? Something that leaves out the histrionics. The emphasis today, in the consumer participant’s mind, is on getting in, and far less, it seems, on what’s the right fit and why. Most students don’t go to the Ivy League, so where’s the Web site for them?”

Mr. Hawsey has thought about creating an alternative college-planning Web site, a nonprofit portal that doesn’t rely on advertising revenues. He imagines it as a forum where families could get an insider’s perspective, without all the back-and-forth chatter about so-and-so’s chances of getting into Harvard or “beating” the SAT.

College Confidential’s never far from Mr. Hawsey’s mind. Like many colleges, Emory & Henry now advertises there. The confirmation of his purchase of the Web site’s domain name hangs, framed, on a wall in his home. He keeps it as a reminder of what the site did and did not become.

“I feel unfulfilled personally,” Mr. Hawsey says. ”I feel like I failed to carry out my original mission to its conclusion. The interest in prestige overran the intent.”

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