There are over 4,500 higher education institutions in the United States. Some of those institutions are flush with financial resources, benefiting from healthy endowments, high tuition rates, federal support, and a wealthy alumni organization. But others are far less fortunate.

With a nearly 20% increase in college admission rates over the past three decades, one would think universities are flush with financial resources from their student body. But according to a report by Moody's Corporation, public universities collectively have nearly $125 billion in outstanding debt as colleges borrow to repair buildings, fund pensions, and build medical facilities and student housing.

"People like to talk about student debt, but university debt, although rarely discussed, is arguably more important," writes Josh Freeman, a writer and researcher on the political economics of higher education. "Schools across the country are borrowing more money, and the increasing reliance on debt-financing at universities is adding logs covered in lighter fluid to an already flammable higher education system."

The University Debt Crisis

With budget cuts on the state and federal level, universities are increasingly facing 'the other debt crisis.' That is, not the student loan debt crisis, but the massive debt held by universities who are seeing their funding take a sizeable haircut.

EdTech expert Sujoy Roy says the entire higher education structure has come to a turning point. From budget cuts to competition from quality online courses, to inflated application numbers, universities are increasingly losing control.

"Students have more options than ever when it comes to higher education," says Roy, the CEO of VisitDays, a platform that connects college enrollment offices with prospective students. "So when the average student applies to 10-14 colleges, the application process loses validity and becomes a glorified lead gen operation rather than a valuable measurement of student to school interest and compatibility."

More Applicants, Less Validity

More students are attending college than ever before; 20.2 million according to the National Center for Education Statistics. As more students see college as an option, the fierce competition leads students to apply to an increasing number of schools that are third, fourth or last resort options.

This trend has turned the tables on universities that used to control the admissions process. Schools used to have the luxury of selecting the best candidates for their incoming classes, but now students have the upper hand. They are now able to blast applications and wait to see who will give them the best opportunity, leaving schools in the dark about authentic interest in attendance.

And with this influx of applications does not come added administrative support. A majority of schools do not have the employee bandwidth read each submission thoroughly, and thus the application process loses relevance. Schools need a better way to capture who is genuinely interested in attending.

The Archaic Process

Schools receive thousands of applications but are unable to evaluate all of the students adequately. If one student has done 20 AP classes or a substantial amount of athletics, does that suggest the student was dedicated or spread too thin? What type of philanthropic work have they done? They may have a less than desirable GPA, but were there outside challenges they had to overcome?

These are the questions that need to be asked of each prospective student but are being asked less and less due to the growing mountain of applications.

Lacking Quality Data

Shrinking administrative departments create a huge bottleneck in the admissions process, something that is solved by looking at data. For example, VisitDays, which acts as an 'Uber' for on-site school tours, conducts follow-up inquiries on student experiences during campus visits.

"Research shows that students who take on-campus tours are 70% more likely to attend," says Roy. "A great indicator in itself, but implementing a survey post-visit is the ideal way to predict yield with up to 97% accuracy, a powerful number for schools to have."

Other startups like Campus Owl connect prospective students to a school ambassador via Skype to provide high school students with some of the more subjective information they want to know.

Implementing the Analytics

Schools cannot simply over-accept and create a waitlist system if they run into an over-population issue. Waitlists lessen public desirability and lower the school's ranking on national evaluations. The solution? As with many industries, it lies in data.

Using third party vendors and platforms to assist understaffed admissions offices and step away from bureaucratic university policies is the ideal way to collect student data and create a system that provides foresight into the coming academic year.

Published on: Feb 1, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.