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By Sharon Hoyer

The first important decision of many young adults' lives – where to apply to college -- was once made largely in the dark. Up until recently, widely accessible sources of information on colleges came largely from the schools themselves, along with a handful of annual magazine guides that provide cold numeric rankings and limited profiles.

Social networking may be about to change all that. Entrepreneur Jordan Goldman, who graduated from college himself only four years ago, has launched — a platform where college students can sign on, create a user name and candidly critique their schools. Currently, profiles of 250 colleges exist on Unigo, but the site will ultimately expand to cover every college in the country. I recently talked with Jordan about how students are using the world’s first open-source college guide.

What issues come up most frequently in Unigo discussions?
We spent about two months just doing research on every one of the colleges on the site before going into the field. Then we spent about five months making sure the content we received was from students of every major, extracurricular activity, hometown, ethnicity, religious affiliation, political affiliation and sexual orientation; in a lot of cases we got 10 percent of the student body to submit content. When we went live we had a varied and diverse perspective. So between campuses there’s a variance of which issues are important and, within each campus, variance based on who each student is and what their interests are. There’s no one uniform concern across all students or campuses.
I think one of the values of Unigo is that if we have 200 reviews of a particular school, users can choose to see only reviews by, say, left-wing students at a conservative institution or African American students at a school that may have a great overall experience, but fewer African American students enrolled.
Is there a way for students to search Unigo according to the programs offered at different colleges?
We’ll soon be implementing Unigo Match—a tool that will allow students to talk about themselves—what they’re interested in, what their background is, what kind of school they’re looking for, what majors they’re looking for—and will recommend schools to look at, as well as individual reviews of those schools written by students just like them. It isn’t in place just yet, but it will be integrated in the live site in about two weeks.
How else can this tool change the face of higher education?
Because Unigo is an evolving platform, anyone with an email address can sign on and create content about their school. That content can be reviews, photos, videos and documents. Those documents can be creative writing, political writing, humor writing, journalism and you can search and view the content created by your fellow students on your campus. But you can also see content created across schools; so you can search documents related to, for example, green issues on both your campus and other campuses. Right now we have students creating work in isolation. Unigo will allow students to upload what they’re working on and collaborate with students at other colleges, which I think could be very useful.

I bet it will be a while before we understand all of the ways that connecting students across the country -- and thus lending power and credibility to their otherwise isolated ideas -- could spur change at the university level. But some ideas seem ripe for the picking: for example, with some of the new and evolving fields of study we've been discussing on Worldchanging in this week's series Majors Making a Difference, we can't help but see the potential for a tool like Unigo to shape the majors of the future through students swapping ideas about what they're learning and what they want to know. And it also seems natural that Unigo could become a platform for the advancement of innovations that level the playing field, such as open source textbooks or even open higher education.

Sharon Hoyer is a freelance writer covering sustainability, culture and arts in Chicago. You can find more of her writings on the environment at the Examiner and Centerstage Chicago. You can find her in the garden or on her bike.

Photo credit: flickr/svobodalT, Creative Commons license.

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