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Exclusive: College Prowler To Stop Printing Guidebooks, Going E-books Only, In 2013

by Noukka Signe via creativecommons

By Paul Glader

College guidebook and ranking service College Prowler  has seen dramatic growth in the past 10 years. But the business model has changed three times and the company will stop printing guidebooks in 2013, opting for e-books only and a fast-growing web and mobile platform.

“We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs,” said Luke Skurman, chief executive of the Pittsburgh, Pa.,-based firm, reflecting on the first 10 years of in an interview with Wired Academic. He started the site in 2002 as he graduated from Carnegie Mellon University. He recounts the three business model changes along the way.

The first involved selling guidebooks, written by and for students. “We proved the model,” he says. “We sold 400,000 guidebooks and had millions of dollars in revenue.” But, in the long run, it wasn’t what College Prowler users – mostly high school juniors and seniors – wanted. They wanted information online.

So from 2007 to 2009, College Prowler began charging online subscriptions for students to read the information online. “But users did not want to or expect to pay for content,” he says. “They wanted content to be free.”

College Prowler content has been free online for about 2.5 years and Skurman says traffic has risen dramatically to 10 million page views per month, 2 million visits, and 1 million unique visitors each month. The site lists 7,000 schools that readers and users can rank (readers have made 360,000 reviews on 4,000 of the schools).

With 14 employees at the firm’s office in Pittsburgh, Skurman says College Prowler is gaining traffic faster than its three larger web rivals: College Board, College Confidential and U.S. News & World Report. Most revenue these days comes from banner ads, lead generation and affiliate marketing. College Prowler is cash flow positive and hasn’t raised capital in more than six years.

Their innovation has to do with generating reviews of campuses by students themselves on a variety of categories ranging from the academics at a campus to the parking situation to the dating potential (i.e. quality of guys and girls on a campus). Skurman said the academics, interestingly, is the most trafficked category. “The guys and girls section is number 2,” he said.

College Prowler is now trying to figure out how to gain more social engagement and interactivity. They want to find ways students will use the site while on college campus or even into graduate school. They are also planning for how to expand on social media platforms like Facebook and on mobile devices such as the IOS platform on the iPod, iPhone and iPad. They aim to be on all theses devices by end of this year. Three years ago, their traffic on mobile devices was 2%. Two years ago it was 4%. A year ago, it was 8%. This year, it is 12%. He expects 20% of traffic will be non-PC at the end of this year.

“We’re just trying to provide a best in class service, best in class information that is really pro student,” he said. “As we keep doing that, we are confident that revenue opportunities are going to emerge.”

While the company still publishes printed college guidebooks now, 2012 will be the last year doing so. In 2013, they will sell E-books only. Borders books, College Prowler’s largest customer a few years ago, is now bankrupt. In 2007, selling books was 100% of College Prowler’s revenue as it sold up to 150,000 books a year. Today, it is less than 5% of company revenue as it sells about 10,000 books total.

“The reality is that … the high school students and the parents, they just aren’t buying that many physical books anymore,” Skurman said. “We have tried everything under the sun in the past 10 years to sell these guidebooks. The numbers get smaller and smaller each year. The content is just out of date right after we publish it.”

What’s his take on the coming wave of digital learning in higher education? How are colleges and universities preparing for this wave?

“These schools are not developing their online strategy at all or fast enough,” he said. Even his alma mater Carnegie Mellon University, where he has been a trustee, is doing a lot but could be doing more. He says colleges, in particular, could be  buying better leads and recruiting students more efficiently.

He believes traditional colleges have, for too long, stuck with the traditional model of buying lists of SAT and ACT scores from The College Board and sending direct mail to potential students. “They just don’t want to adapt,” he said. “I understand it worked for 60 years. It doesn’t mean it will work for another 25 or 50 years.”

He believes the full-time online colleges – the Kaplans and University of Phoenixes – are getting stronger even though they have had compliance issues. ”The Internet has disrupted every single industry,” he said. “I don’t understand why colleges haven’t adapted faster.”


Luke Skurman, CEO of College Prowler

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