The Problem with College Admissions These Days

And the solution from an unlikely group of heroes leveling the playing field.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT CollegeVine team.pngCollege admissions is not fair. That is the fundamental premise upon which this company rests, and is what keeps CollegeVine CEO Jon Carson (pictured, far right) and co-founder Johan Zhang (second from left) motivated to do more for high school students and their families. Johan’s perspective comes from his own difficult ordeal with admissions as a first-gen immigrant with few resources; meanwhile, Jon’s experience that no matter what school you go to, it all works out in the end, is an optimistic bent that keeps him digging in. Also leading their team is Zack Perkins and Vinay Bhaskara (far left, second from right above), both of whom bring to bear their own additional and unique sets of experiences. With 38 minutes being the average time a student spends with their high school guidance department across four years of school, and the average student-to-guidance counselor ratio in U.S. public schools at a whopping 472:1, both Jon and Johan knew there was a massive problem. “The truth is, public high school students are at a significant disadvantage relative to their private school peers in terms of resources,” says Jon. Their company, CollegeVine, is trying to level the increasingly unfair playing field. “We are fundamentally on the side of students and their families,” he says. “At our core, we are trying to accomplish the goals of 1) using mentorship to build stronger students who are going to be successful in life, and 2) helping them navigate the admissions process according their goals, whether it’s getting into a very competitive top university or simply finding the best school for them.”

We all want purpose in our lives and education was, and still is, the root of the global economic food chain. Making it better gives me a sense of purpose.

Here, Jon and Johan talk about their team, their values, the state of education today, technology’s role in education, sources of inspiration as edtech entrepreneurs, some of the biggest misconceptions families have about the admissions process, and what they’re most excited about when they look to the future — all in this fascinating chat.

Your team has ‘older guard’ and newer Millennial-ish types – how do you approach that, use that? Is there any discussion here on that, any humor?

CREDIT CollegeVine.pngJon: The key is respect and open communication to shared goals. Humor is part of it. Another is to check ageism at the door. Perhaps the most important going forward is to hire great people who share those values.

Johan: Additionally, I think it’s really important to develop a culture of continued growth and learning — in both directions. The younger folks should be excited to absorb the wisdom and knowledge of our more experienced veterans, and in the reverse, the older guys need to see the value in fresh perspectives — not to mention be willing to learn about the latest complex, cutting edge technologies—like how to plug in an HDMI cable!

What is the state of education these days?

Jon: Education is becoming loaded because it is so tied to economic inequality, and parents know the table stakes are high and getting higher. Labor markets have become increasingly competitive as the transition to a “knowledge economy” is accelerating globally. This is putting pressure on the college admissions process, which, in turn, is putting pressure on kids to make the most of their high school years. And, of course, you can’t have a great high school experience if you are in a cruddy school system with sub-par elementary and middle schools.

That said, there is this tendency to make blanket statements about U.S. public education (i.e., “It’s a mess.”). This kind of broad assessment misses the fact that there are many, many high-performing school districts and examples of excellent teaching. For example, in our home state of Massachusetts, which is usually ranked the #1 state for public schools, there are tons of systems doing a great job getting kids ready for the world they are headed to.

What are your thoughts on technology’s role in education? 

Jon: I am personally of the opinion that while technology can be a boon to learning, ultimately the human interaction component is still very important. There is something irreplaceable about having a human being teaching you and mentoring you that I don’t believe a set of tech tools could ever replace.

Johan: While I agree with Jon, I do think it’s exceptionally exciting that technology enables new ways of learning that were never possible before. For example, with how widespread video chatting is nowadays, we can begin to place a larger emphasis on the quality of the tutor, regardless of where they are physically in relation to the student. So students’ potentials are no longer limited by the learning resources directly around them — in just minutes, we can have the best and brightest passing on their skills to your child in the comfort of your own home.

I’m also excited by technology’s role in lowering barriers of entry for students from all backgrounds looking to get a great education. At CollegeVine, one of our long-term goals is to provide every student with access to smart high school guidance and college admissions planning. Through the work of our tech team, we have already been able to offer a much better guidance experience at half the cost of what your local college consultant offers.

What is your background in education technology why did you choose this industry?

Jon: In 1990, I started the FamilyEducation Network, which ultimately became the largest education website on the internet before getting acquired by Pearson in 2000. Roughly 25 percent of all U.S. school districts built their first website on our platform. It was a great ride, very purposeful, and all stakeholders did well.

We all want purpose in our lives and education was, and still is, the root of the global economic food chain. Making it better gives me a sense of purpose.

How did you initially get involved in CollegeVine?

Jon: I had recently completed an exit and was volunteering at the Harvard Innovation Lab, where I met the founders of CollegeVine (then known as Admissions Hero) and thru the iLab became assigned as the company’s mentor.

What inspired you to join the company as CEO?

Jon: I liked the team, loved that the company was fundamentally changing kids’ life trajectories, could see there was some early underlying momentum in the model, and the more I worked with them, the clearer it became that I could add a lot of value. But perhaps the biggest draw was the over-the-top results their clients were achieving with the help of the CollegeVine curriculum and near-peer mentors.

Why is this company’s service proving so successful with high school students?

Jon: High school guidance departments have been getting hollowed out over the last two decades. It’s an easy department to hit during budget time because it is not on the academic front line. But the net result is just as society and the economy are bearing down on kids to make good decisions during their high school years, the resource is usually not sufficient. We are filling that gap and actually providing some differentiating value by connecting high schoolers to near-peer mentors who are a couple of years up ahead of them, so they can better relate and build trust.

What has been your biggest surprise in running CollegeVine?

Jon: I didn’t realize how depleted high school guidance departments are and how fast the independent college advisory market was exploding.

What are your plans for leading the company into the future?

Jon: We will have succeeded if we can build the leading brand in high school guidance by continuing to scale the fairly impressive results delivered to date and to drive down costs/increase affordability.

What inspired you to start CollegeVine?

Johan: My co-founders and I started CollegeVine after our own experiences with the college admissions process. All three of us went to the same public high school in New Jersey, where the guidance staff was filled with counselors who were absolutely wonderful people but also extremely under-leveraged. Despite their best intentions, they simply did not have the time to give each student the amount of attention required for their unique situation.

This is the story at many public high schools in the nation — the average student only receives 38 minutes of college guidance across four years, and the average guidance counselor is responsible for 472 students. And this is happening during a time period when the economy is becoming increasingly less forgiving of poor post-secondary school planning.

We realized that we could fill the gap with our own experiences with the admissions process. After working with students ourselves out of our college dorm rooms, we stumbled upon a key innovation — the concept of near-peer mentors.

What is near-peer mentoring?

Johan: Near-peer mentors are close enough in age or experience to their students to relate to them on a personal level, yet still old enough to have extensive knowledge and experience in a domain.

What we’ve found is that near-peer mentorship produces better outcomes — particularly in the space of high school guidance and college admissions. A couple of factors are at play: 1) college admissions is a deeply introspective and personal process, especially when colleges are constantly asking students to show why they are unique; 2) high school students don’t really like talking to adults (it’s unfortunate but I’m sure many parents can attest to this!); and 3) our mentors are inspiring, since they represent role models who are not really that much older than their students themselves.

How does CollegeVine’s digital model work?

Johan: Our students are paired one-to-one with a CollegeVine mentor selected based on their interests and aspirations. Students work with their mentors online using tools that provide them with progress analytics, video chat, a real-time essay editor, and other tools for families to make informed decisions about the college process.

In addition to their main mentor, students are also assigned an Application Manager, who is a senior-level employee at the company that oversees all the work that they do. So, each of our students is actually working with a team whose interactions are facilitated smoothly via our technology backend.

What does your service provide that high school guidance counselors can’t?

Johan: In the ideal state of the world, guidance counselors would do exactly what we do. But the problem is that each guidance counselor is responsible for an increasing number of students while their budgets have been slashed.

That being said, we offer many advantages when compared to the local counselor. First, our mentors have recently gone through the admissions process themselves, meaning that their advice is rooted in personal experience and is extremely up-to-date and relevant. The fact that they are close in age to the students they work with builds trust and improves the experience from both a process and an outcome perspective. Additionally, due to our scale, we are able to provide recommendations on aggregate admissions trends using data from the thousands of students that have passed through the CollegeVine system. Finally, we offer an extremely personalized service — each CollegeVine mentor only works with a maximum of three students at any given time.

What is the biggest misconception families have about the college admissions process?

Johan: In my opinion, the biggest misconceptions surround the financial aspect of admissions. Although a college education provides many intangible benefits to an individual (including self-discovery, intellectual development and social skills), ultimately college is a massive financial decision — in fact, it’s second only to buying a home. In spite of this, too many families are still under-optimized to make a wise decision about the financial return of a college education. You see this type of thing happening all the time — students graduate with massive amounts of debt and suffer greatly to pay it all off. Often times, that school with the big sticker price or even your local state school is not the best option for your situation. Many schools, including “elite” universities, award massive amounts of need-based financial aid. And there are often special programs and scholarships that you might not be aware of that can completely change the college conversation when it comes to finances.

Part of our guidance when we work with families is to help them understand the best financial decision from an ROI perspective, so when we generate school lists for students, we’re not only choosing colleges that will they will be happy at, but also colleges where they will be in a healthy state financially once they graduate.

What are you most excited about moving forward?

Johan: I’m most excited about showing more and more families that we are, by far, the best option available when it comes to helping them confidently navigate the path to the best schools for them. We are here to build the strongest brand in high school guidance and college admissions, and in order to do that, our number one goal is to continue delivering the incredible results that have driven our amazing word-of-mouth growth.

Ultimately, families are entrusting their children with us, and we take that responsibility very seriously. Really, at the end of the day, we are here to change futures for the better.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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