Innovative website helps students find right college
FREEPORT, Dec 08, 2012 (Portland Press Herald - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Morse High School senior Katlyn Gonzalez got the good news about a week ago: She's going to University of Vermont next year.
She said Possibility U, a new website developed by a former Freeport school board member, helped her find the right college.
On the site, a student enters a few schools of interest, then the website scours college databases using the student's academic information. Possibility U then provides a map showing the student's chances of getting accepted and getting financial aid at a particular college.
It also recommends other colleges that might be a good fit for the student.
"It really helped me, it really gave me confidence," said Gonzalez, 17, who plans eventually to go to medical school and become a radiologist. "I used the College Board website first, and I got a lot of information, but it didn't personalize it. I needed something to really personalize it to me."
Betsy Peters, who created the site, said that's what makes Possibility U different from other online college navigation or filtering tools.
The clients of Possibility U are high schools, which put their students' grades and test scores into the system. So when a student signs in, the program already knows his or her SAT scores and grade point average, and whether he or she has taken Advanced Placement courses.
"We leverage the data that's already available at the school and we can say, 'You're on track,' or 'You're competitive,'" Peters said. "These are things that have been framed generically before."
Gonzalez said she went into the college admissions process thinking the University of Vermont would be a reach for her. But Possibility U showed that she was more competitive than she thought, and that financial aid looked promising.
Peters said that isn't uncommon for high school students in the college admissions process. Many go by recommendations from teachers, counselors, friends and family members, or wade through websites to pick out a handful of colleges.
On average, Peters said, students spend only 38 minutes researching their college choices.
"I saw there was a whole nest of problems ... we're looking to solve that," said Peters, who runs Possibility U from her home office in Freeport. "What if the right school for you isn't even on your radar "
The two-year-old company got started with an undisclosed arrangement with an angel investor -- usually someone who gives money in exchange for a stake in the company or other return on investment -- and several seed grants.
It was featured earlier this year at a White House conference encouraging entrepreneurs to use federal data to develop technology.
Possibility U uses students' data from its client schools to search open-source federal education data, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, and College Board data.
It recently received "innovator" status from Pearson, the world's biggest education services company, which also partnered with Possibility U.
As part of the partnership, Possibility U is included as a tool in Pearson's Power School suite of products, used by schools and organizations supporting 10 million students in all 50 states and over 65 countries.
"That has opened a ton of doors," Peters said.
In April, the Software & Information Industry Association named Possibility U a finalist for its Innovation Incubator Program, which raised its profile for people tracking the education-software sector, and gave Peters an opportunity to pitch the site at an education technology summit.
Today, Possibility U has nine paying customers, including Freeport and Morse high schools in Maine.
Peters wouldn't disclose financial data about Possibility U or reveal the source or amount of investor funding, but said she needs to sign up about 100 high schools to break even. The company now has four full-time employees.
At Freeport High, guidance counselor Alexis Rog said the site is a great supplement to the one-on-one counseling that most students need to navigate the college admissions process.
"It's a fabulous tool for students who are really interested in learning independently about the nuts and bolts of the college application process," said Rog, one of three counselors at Freeport High.
The school has a senior class of 130 students; about 66 percent go to four-year colleges and 17 percent go to two-year colleges.
Rog, who has been a guidance counselor for eight years, said one of the biggest challenges is keeping students on a timeline and meeting deadlines.
Possibility U helps with that, partly because a student can access it at any hour.
How does it work
A school buys a software license, and all of its student data is incorporated into the program. School officials decide how many students to include. Most schools use it for juniors and seniors only, although one college-oriented private school in Massachusetts uses it for ninth- through 12th-graders.
Schools pay about $10 per student.
Once a student logs on, the program starts by asking for a few colleges he or she is interested in attending.
It then uses 78 characteristics to compare, analyze and rank two- and four-year colleges in the United States. It then creates a heat map, plotting schools according to the student's chance of being accepted and likelihood of getting financial aid.
Users can manipulate the results, sorting or organizing by major, level of academic rigor and unique characteristics of the student body.
In addition to ranking colleges, the site offers coaching videos on how to apply to college, essay and interview tips, and text or email reminders about upcoming deadlines.
Parents and guidance counselors can track the way a student is using the website.
Parents even can sign up to get their own reminders that notify them if their child is falling behind in the process.
"It eliminates the nag factor," Peters said. Even more important, it puts students in control of the process.
"It's their first big decision," she said. "This way, it's a supported decision, but it's their decision."
Peters said Possibility U differs from other online college filtering tools by providing a tailored response to each student because it has his or her academic records.
Peters said she's focused on signing up more schools and expanding the site's reach. For example, she hopes to expand the site to include trade and technical schools.
Gonzalez's guidance counselor at Morse High in Bath said the online tools speak to today's tech-savvy students.
"There are lots of good books, but what I like is that it takes all of that and puts it into a medium they're already plugged into," said Leslie Trundy.
Trundy said the school has used grant money to pay for Possibility U so far, but after using it for two years she thinks it would be worth "prioritizing" it as a regular school cost.
Morse High has 140 seniors and 150 juniors, so the site would cost the school about $3,000 each year.
About 50 percent of its graduates go on to four-year colleges and another 20 percent go to two-year colleges.
"I've been really pleased with it," Trundy said of Possibility U. "I want all the kids using it."
Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:
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