Everything you’ve heard about getting in is about to go out the window.
Craig was still dating his high school girlfriend when he made it to Brown. She was two years younger and finishing high school in Barnard, Missouri, a no-stoplight town with a graduating class of nine students. She grew up living in a trailer with her divorced mother, a nursing aide who took home $13,000 a year. The biggest event of her senior year involved her uncle being arrested for murder after running over his wife with a combine. Haley was smart, had good grades, and wanted to get the hell out of Barnard, Missouri.
Craig brought Haley to New England to look at schools. She settled on Providence College, filled out the application, and waited for news. In February, Craig began pestering her: Are you sure you filled out all the financial aid forms? Wasn’t there one more? No, she said, it’s fine. Weeks later, good news arrived in the mail. She had gotten in to Providence College. Tears of joy were shed; now they just had to wait for the financial aid package.
More weeks went by. The package never arrived. Finally they called the college. What financial aid? the college said. You never filled out the last form, “Part B”—the one with seven short questions simply confirming that all the financial information you submitted in Part A (like the fact that your divorced mother lives in a trailer and earns $13,000 a year) is still correct. So we assumed you didn’t need any financial aid, and now it’s all gone.
Craig called Providence College pretending to be her uncle (not the one with the combine). He pleaded with their sense of mission and public obligation. Isn’t she the kind of student you’re here to serve? He eventually wore them down, and they cobbled together a financial aid package heavy on loans. Craig and Haley didn’t stay together. But she did enroll at Providence College. In fact, she earned top grades, married the class president, held the ceremony on campus, and still works in higher education today.
While at Brown, Craig showed an early knack for entrepreneurship. He started a company called Ivy Tutors and staffed it with classmates who provided extra help to area high school students. In the process, he realized that northwest Missouri wasn’t the only place where your educational destination had a lot do with where you start. A few blocks north of the Brown campus is Hope High School, a notoriously dysfunctional public institution riddled by poverty and low performance. Directly across the street is Moses Brown School, an elite private academy that sends its graduates into the upper reaches of higher education. Craig charged students from places like Moses Brown one price and used the proceeds to charge parents from places like Hope High much less.
During the summer between semesters, Craig also worked for a large financial firm that invested in the health care industry. The dot-com revolution was well under way, so they sent Craig to San Francisco to spend time with entrepreneurs who were trying to digitize the vast troves of medical information locked in paper medical records. The old analog health record system was wasting phenomenal amounts of money and resulting in substandard—even fatal—medical outcomes.
Craig saw clear parallels in college admissions. In what kind of world can a few checkmarks on Form B be the difference between one kind of life and another? The higher education system had sent seven recruiters promising full scholarships to his living room because he was good at pinning people to a mat. Why hadn’t anyone come because he was smart and driven and the only freshman on the speech and debate team? And what about all the other students who weren’t quite so driven or quite so lucky—shouldn’t they have a choice other than Northwest Missouri State? Craig hadn’t won another tournament, he realized; he had won a lottery—one in which some people got a fistful of tickets and others none at all. That insight, paired with the realization that there was profit to be made in overturning the current system, became the seed of ConnectEDU.
C onnectEDU has two main types of clients. The first are middle and high schools and, by extension, the families served by them. The company sets up a series of Web sites for students, parents, and guidance counselors. All of the students’ academic information—course descriptions, grades, standardized test scores, interest inventories, and more—are loaded in. Starting in the seventh grade, students can log on and start filling out short questionnaires that help them figure out where they might like to go to college. Then the computer program lays out a path describing all the steps the student will need to take to get there. This is what Jameel Reid and his classmates have access to, starting this year.
There’s a lot of focus on course selection. Selective colleges like to see a progression of increasingly difficult courses, particularly in science and math. To take Calculus in the twelfth grade, you have to take Algebra I in the eighth grade. Some students, like Jameel, figure this out on their own. But many others don’t learn how important this is until they start seriously looking at colleges in the eleventh grade or later—years too late. ConnectEDU continually analyzes data from hundreds of thousands of students to refine and identify the pathways that are most likely to lead to college success. The program analyzes lists of potential colleges, compares them to students’ academic trajectory, and tells them if they’re shooting too high or not high enough. (The Air Force uses similar algorithms to adjust the in-flight trajectory of guided missiles.)
The program also tracks deadlines for admissions testing, scholarship applications, and financial aid, and sends alerts to students’ mobile phones when problems—e.g., “You haven’t filled out Part B”—occur. Parents and guidance counselors can also access the data. With many school budgets in crisis and student-to-guidance counselor ratios soaring, such tools can be crucial.
Then, when college application season approaches, the ConnectEDU “SuperAPP” program automatically populates the applications of students’ target colleges with information from its database. Typically, 85 percent of each application is already filled out before students and parents lift a finger. The program helped students in the impoverished Detroit public school system fill out over 4,000 college applications in one week.
All of this is completely free for high schools. That’s because ConnectEDU makes most of its money from the second set of clients: colleges and universities.
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