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How Technology Can Support the President’s College Opportunity Agenda

Don Fraser

President & Founder , CollegeSnapps

The Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 jolted the United States and triggered the Space Race that saw two world powers jockeying for Cold War dominance and military supremacy. To win the Space Race, however, the United States felt we needed a more educated populace, specifically additional scientists and mathematicians.  In 1958, the U.S. signed into law the National Defense Education Act, which provided millions of dollars to educational institutions across the K-16 spectrum. Some of these dollars were used to create a cadre of vocational counselors charged with identifying high school students with the potential and skills to make a difference in this Race.

School counselors could argue that that was the last time their role was seen as critical to the success of the nation—until President Barack Obama took office in 2008.

In 2009, one of President Obama’s first declarations regarding education was for the United States, by the year 2020, to once again be the world leader in the percentage of adults ages 25-34 with a college degree. He estimated that we needed 8 million additional degree-completers in order to achieve this ambitious “North Star” goal.  Yet with less than 45 percent of degree seekers actually completing their college degree, the possibility seemed far-fetched.

The hope? Increase the number of students from historically underrepresented, often low-income, households enrolling in college. Given the demographic shift in our country and rates of population growth, this “new majority” of college-goers could provide a pool of untapped talent.

However, these students often attend high schools where the student-to-school-counselor ratio is more than twice the recommended average of 250:1. In some states, that ratio is 1000:1, and in some urban cities (see Philadelphia), school counselors have been all but eliminated. Who would provide students with the necessary information, encourage their enrollment and guide them through the cumbersome application process?

College Opportunity Summit

On January 16, 2014, President Obama and the First Lady hosted the College Opportunity Summit and invited a group of educational leaders, institutions and organizations committed to expanding college opportunities. The Summit kicked off a series of events and discussions that have highlighted the role and importance of the school counselor.

On July 1, 2014, the First Lady provided the Keynote address at the American School Counselor Association’s annual national conference and spoke about her Reach Higher Initiative, which encourages all students to pursue some form of higher education. And later that month, on July 28, she provided the opening message at the joint White House-Harvard Graduate School of Education’s College Opportunity Agenda in Cambridge, MA.

This convening brought together 150 education thought leaders to “discuss how improvements in school counseling and college advising can bring about greater postsecondary opportunities for Americans.” It highlighted collaborative efforts from around the country that are making a real difference in students’ educational outcomes.  These initiatives, which were based largely upon people and programs, demonstrated that there is no single, standardized method of accomplishing the President’s goal; rather, success depends on organizational resources, partners and a clear commitment to students. Moreover, it also relies on your belief that investing in students’ ability to go to and complete college is beneficial for the country at the national, state and local levels. Can these initiatives that rely so heavily on quality personnel scale? Can technology play a role?

How Technology Can Support the College Opportunity Agenda

In December 2013 GetSchooled and the Kresge Foundation released a report entitled, How is Technology Addressing the College Access Challenge, providing educators in the market for technology with a buyer’s guide—critical knowledge and things to consider before making a purchase. One recommendation was to “invest in tools that begin with the underserved student in mind.”

Gone are the days of building with the top 2 percent in mind, the “power consumers” who seek to gobble up any and all technology and information that could potentially provide them with an advantage in the world of ultra-competitive college admissions. The real opportunity and need lies at the feet of the “new majority” and the school counselors and support professionals who are committed to their success.

That’s especially true for edtech entrepreneurs. If you hope to scale, your idea must be able to serve the “new majority.” It must speak to their needs, which, as it relates to college enrollment and completion, are often vast. It must be nimble enough to control for the assortment of schools they attend. You should seek to leverage and include school counselors, who can serve as powerful advocates as you scale.  Most importantly, someone on your team must have domain expertise—a deep understanding of how underserved students think, what excites and terrifies them, how they are marketed to, what they listen to and what they ignore.

Just as the programs at July’s College Opportunity Agenda have found success in partnerships, entrepreneurs seeking to move the needle in education must work diligently to do the same. Schools and educational programs are more than clients who can help us prove that our idea has merit. Many of them are as hungry as we are to make a difference.

Together, we can help one another. It requires dogged determination and incredible patience, but the pay-off is that you will learn whether or not your idea has potential, what you may need to change and a host of key considerations of which you may not have thought. Who knows? You may even find a cofounder, an advisor or someone who is just as excited about your technology as you are.

Don Fraser is president and founder of CollegeSnapps, a mobile communication platform that places an advisor in the hands of every high school and college student in order to help them navigate the path to and through college. Built by educators, CollegeSnapps provides students with crucial information exactly when they need it via mobile nudges and at the touch of a button connects them with their academic advisor or school counselor so help is always at their fingertips.

Don Fraser

President & Founder , CollegeSnapps