Monday, August 31, 2009

The Price of Education

August 31, 2009 - This weekend, the country mourned as Senator Ted Kennedy was laid to rest. Sure, there are plenty of controversial issues he tackled over his 47 years as the Lion of the Senate, but his desire to level the playing field in higher education access was something in which people from both sides of the aisle took notice. From having dedicated my career to this mission, I have learned that this doesn’t have to be a partisan political issue but rather an American issue. It’s an issue we take very seriously at ConnectEDU.

A recent opinion piece published in the Boston Globe, written by Michael Dannenberg (a former Kennedy staffer BTW) of the New America Foundation sheds some light on how we need to change the course of higher education in regards to cost.

We can all agree that the cost of tuition is getting out of control. Besides outpacing the cost of living increases and inflation, it is becoming unaffordable for large populations of young people. But, families across America continue to invest in a college education, with their large loans, based on the value they place on it. According to Dannenberg, “families choose colleges and borrow almost blindly. They have relatively little information as to how good an investment a particular school is. Ranking guides like that of US News & World Report focus on the top 20 percent of schools and inputs like class size as opposed to outcomes like how much students learn.” (also read my latest tweet on the topic at We are working to make sure families have the information they need to select the very best college for them.

While in recent years, there has been much discussion and policy to get students to get to college – there has been a blind eye to what happens once they arrive or when they graduate from their selected college. What it comes down to is a student’s ability to afford college (i.e. get access to the funds initially) and then repay his or her debt after they graduate from the school. Did the student depart early from college? Did they depart with a degree? Do they have a job? What level of salary can he or she expect to earn in order to make the monthly payment? While a family’s ROI (Return On Investment)is rarely discussed within higher ed circles, it is starting to become a paramount focus for families. While class size, student satisfaction ratings and nice dorms do carry weight in ranking a school, why are outcomes not more of a weighted determining factor? And how much value should I place on these other factors if at the end of the day, I don’t have a job or can’t afford the debt that I’ve incurred?

And while CDU agrees with Dannenberg’s call for a complex new system of ranking schools to construct a higher education value index, ConnectEDU is taking an intermediate, but important, approach to helping families. Our tools offer a student the ability to compare projected debt burden and payback payments to starting salaries for their career choice – and they can do this in as early as the 7th grade! Helping students analyze their debt ratio early on… a first step in helping them make good decisions when it comes to borrowing and determining which schools they can afford.

Providing students these tools to understand what they are getting into, to gain a broader perspective of their future, and to help them make better-informed decisions is a win-win for all involved in student success – students, colleges and lenders!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Think Outside of the Box

August 10, 2009- It was a warm summer evening, a great night to stop over my buddy’s place to escape the humid city air. Besides a cool ocean breeze blowing into the kitchen, I was met with a pile of boxes piling across the breakfast nook. I knew the housing market was reportedly rebounding, but I had no idea my friend and his family were planning to move without so much as a mention. I was quickly corrected when his son came in and dropped a stack of brochures into a box labeled “out of state”. It then all made sense; he was organizing his college recruitment material. Although I shouldn’t have been, I was shocked to see so many pieces ‘inside the box”.

A recent blog in the New York Times caught my attention, on the subject of college recruiting. Although the article, based on a recent Sports Illustrated expose focused on the extreme of athletic practices, the trend is indicative of college recruitment across the country. Consider this: for one gifted athlete, the total amount of paper wasted to get this student’s attention resulted in 135 pounds of paper. Regarding waste, SI reported calculations that if each of the 347 Division I basketball programs sends 2.4 pounds of mail annually to 200 kids, the environmental impact each year of the production of that paper would be:

  • the consumption of 220 tons of wood, the equivalent of about 1,526 trees;

  • greenhouse gas emissions equal to what 39 cars produce in a year, and the use of enough energy to power 32 homes for a year;

  • and 167,034 pounds of solid waste, which would fill six garbage trucks, and 1,423,939 gallons of wastewater, the equivalent of two swimming pools' full.

It might be comforting to believe that this is a special case only for elite athletes, or an exception to the rule, but unfortunately, it’s not. In fact, if anything college athletic recruitment would appear to be “environmental” by comparison to the recruitment of the typical undergraduate. Students who’ve never stepped foot onto an athletic field or competed on a gym floor are being sent endless streams of printed materials telling prospects about their dedicated faculty, academic excellence, and beautiful campuses. Some come addressed to the student. Some indicate they know a data point about the student like an SAT score. Some are simply sent blind. It’s a growing industry getting more intense as competition for fewer students increases. And, in the midst of concern about shrinking budgets and a contracting student population, many in the industry are going to what they know best – paper!

ConnectEDU is focused on reversing this trend. Colleges might support a continued communication plan that involves three brochure mailers, four postcards, a few emails and several phone calls. But at ConnectEDU, we believe enrollment marketing should begin with real data to identify the right students. With a better sense of who the student is, recruiters in admissions can better target their message… actually connect with students, perhaps even BUILD A RELATIONSHIP. If the message is compelling enough for that one student, there may not be a need for 2.4 pounds of paper clogging the mailbox. Remember that student athlete being recruited? Interesting to note he chose a college that never sent a direct mail piece and strictly relied on personal contact with the right message… um, perhaps relationship development is the key!

Imagine a student telling a college they only wanted to stay in the Northeast. University of Colorado wouldn’t need to waste the postage. Think about a student telling a college they only wanted to play Division III baseball. Georgia Tech could stop the presses. Picture a student telling a college they wanted to attend a community college. University of New Hampshire could cancel the mail house. Eliminate waste.

Wouldn’t it be nice if a junior - with a 3.0 GPA, 1120 SATs, who played volleyball but didn’t start on the varsity team, spent two summers on missions in Central America, and won the statewide science fair for his talking robot – actually connected electronically with a college admission officer at a school in suburban Boston with an engineering degree program, a Latin America ministry program, and men’s intramural and Division III volleyball teams? You’re thinking how can that be? Wouldn’t you have to mail at least four different brochures?

It may sound like an impossible task, (and, please, excuse my sarcasm) but it is in fact unbelievably achievable. Just look at an industry such as employment recruiting which made the transition in the 90’s. The ConnectEDU National Network makes it possible as well.

Students within Connect! are showcasing their academic accomplishments, their extracurricular activities, their areas of interest, their college preferences and other data to paint a more complete picture of who they are. In turn, colleges are able to identify and communicate with students using more points of validated data (not only self-reported data) than has ever been available. Soon the days of excessive recruitment materials will be a thing of the past and our college campuses can remain tree-lined.

[Stay tuned til next week when I’ll discuss how these inefficiencies in the paper recruitment process also perpetuate the college access problem for many students.]

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Hitting The Road

August 6, 2009 - It’s summer. And all across America, people are packing up their RVs, minivans and SUVs and hitting the road. They’re heading to the coasts and trekking to the mountains. They’re off to sightsee in places they’ve only read about. They’re exploring unknown places they’ve only seen on tv. Now imagine, on a whim, you pack up your family and drive 500 miles away to experience someplace new – someplace educational for the kids. Let’s say, Washington D.C.

After about 10 hours in the car you cruise down Pennsylvania Avenue, take a glimpse at the White House, turn your head and quickly take in the Capital, glance at the Lincoln Memorial, although you can’t see Lincoln inside, then find a parking spot and run through the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum. Now hop back in the minivan and turn back for home with vague memories of neoclassic architecture and million year old fossils. Not the ideal vacation to say the least in a city that you could spend weeks exploring and still not experience all it has to offer.

Well according to a recent article in the Boston Globe, for graduates of local high schools, that’s what it’s like for our college-bound population. Kids are getting to college, but leaving early.

Educators are celebrating an increase in the number of students who graduate high school and transition to college. Higher than the national average, 78% of the city’s seniors enrolled in a two-year or four-year school. But later in the article The Globe reports, “A landmark study conducted by the Center for Labor Market Studies last year on the city’s high school classes of 2000 found that only about a third of those who enrolled in college had graduated seven years later.” (That’s right SEVEN years later.) It’s one thing to get to college, but if students don’t benefit from all it has to offer, and ultimately leave early without a degree (and likely a significant debt burden) is that success?

Critics say that high schools need to increase the academic rigor to make sure students are better prepared. They believe they are addressing the root of the persistence problem. Others take a more band-aid approach and call for partnerships with non-profits to provide academic support while students are in college. These critics believe this after-the-fact approach will help students persist.
Yet isn’t academic preparedness only one, albeit substantial, determining factor in college graduation rates? There exists a myriad of reasons why large numbers of academically-sound students drop out of college, including financial resources as stated in the article. In fact, the number one reason students drop-out is because they lack a four-year financial plan.

And as more first-generation students enroll in college, a disconnect between the process of “going to college” and “why I am going to college” widens. More students are entering an institution and simply do not have a plan or a career pathway – complete with goals, financing, a checklist of what they need to achieve and the order in which it needs to be achieved, who’s monitoring and/or assisting and guiding them. Why can’t we get this right in this country?

As an education system, we’ve become adept at telling our young people they need to earn a college degree. We require them to visit the guidance office senior year. We hand them applications for schools we think they’d get into. We send them on their way in June. What we (educators and employers) need to do is work with our young people in earlier stages and throughout each of the stages to help them develop a career pathway, ensure that they stay on that plan, that the plan is affordable and doable, that we can intervene and motivate as needed. We wouldn’t drive to Washington DC without a map, road signs and safety nets to keep us well rested and fueled up… so why do we send kids off to college in hopes that they’ll find their way but without any of the basic tools needed to navigate?

Fortunately, innovations are available to bring counselors, employers and students together to empower the student with resources and information for creating a sensible, individual plan. Showing students what is possible – and what they need to do to make it possible - will help guide their decisions as they transition to the right college and the right career. Solutions are available that allow adults to engage the student throughout their process – high school, then college, then their career. With the right tools, students can figure out where they want to be, how to make getting there affordable, the benefits of being there, and furthermore, how to get them on that road to success with no turning back.