Unicorns and Garbage Cans: The Impact of Tech on Access to Higher Education

Mobile tech aimed at would-be college students is on the rise. But who really benefits from it?

I’ll never forget that day. He had just told me about picking through garbage cans to feed himself and his mother. Trying to keep his grades up was hardest when he could only study until 6:00 pm because their electricity was often turned off due to nonpayment of another bill. I’d been volunteering at a youth center in a run-down part of Los Angeles, and these stories were all too common.

On this particular day, however, one thing truly struck me—that same young man of 17, Raul, reached into the tattered pocket of his second-hand jeans and pulled out a smartphone. The ubiquitous nature of such devices, even among the neediest teens in our communities, makes this a thrilling time for those of us bringing educational technology solutions to the market. With every click, a teen is empowered to choose or reject the educational options presented. Will they embrace this curriculum or that? One teacher or another? Suddenly instead of being relegated to digging for scraps, every student can potentially become a guest at the table of opportunity.

The 2015–2016 school year will go down in history as a perfect storm of transitions in higher education and a very exciting time in the world of college admission. While most high school seniors impatiently await regular admission and deferment decisions (“not the dreaded waitlist…nooo!”), college counselors are anxiously awaiting further developments in admission upheavals like the new SAT, federal student aid application changes, and the newest squall in the applications world, the Coalition App for Access, Affordability, and Success.

According to venture capital database CB Insights, more than $1.87 billion was invested in education technology in 2014. Naturally, the ed-tech arena has been a great, untapped frontier—and a veritable gold rush for inventors and investors eager to pan for gold in “them thar hills.”

Let’s take a deeper look. A “unicorn,” or venture capitalist tech app with a net worth of at least $1 billion, is prime for the taking in the education technology world. The College Board’s “Access to Opportunity” is one such contender. According to their website, the Access to Opportunity initiative intends to provide “current college students or recent college grads from top schools” as counselors to undergraduate applicants who may not have access to a college counselor at their school. The Coalition also plans to provide “virtual” guidance from a fleet of undergraduates from their affiliate schools.

This is all wonderful on paper, but it doesn’t change the fact that students from affluent private high schools have practically unfettered access to a highly qualified college counselor to help with traversing the sea of a college portfolio aggregating from the ninth grade, while an applicant from a public school with no counselor due to budget cuts can choose from a wealth of…college undergraduates with no training.

I don’t want to cast any aspersions at what may very well be the best of intentions and a platform offering meaningful assistance, but this smells like unicorn grooming to me. Nor am I convinced that an untrained undergraduate on a tech app will be the answer to lowering the bridge to college access, though I suppose it is better than nothing. But if the intent is really to open access to higher education, then why is the funding for these initiatives not dumped into financing the league of college counselors whose jobs were cut (the committed professionals who actually went to college specifically to work in education and guidance?).

I can’t help but wonder if it really is best for the underrepresented or best for the venture capitalists supporting these ed tech initiatives. I sincerely hope it is for the former, but only time will tell.

Let’s hope that the right solutions from the right professionals with the right intentions make their ways onto smartphones for the sake of students like Raul whose lifeline to a better future is, in these days of ed tech, as near as their own pockets.

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About Pamela Donnelly

Pamela Donnelly

Pamela Donnelly is a #1 bestselling author (SWAT Team Tactics for Getting Your Teen Into College), speaker, and educational expert whose work can be viewed at www.pameladonnelly.com. As Time magazine's go-to college admission expert, she has appeared on regional and national television, and Larry King has endorsed her recently published book, 4 Keys to College Admissions Success.

Donnelly is a frequent speaker at live events throughout the greater Los Angeles region and a passionate advocate for education reform. She graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia University with degrees in literature/writing and secondary education, and she has been called "the Suze Orman of education." A professional educator for more than 20 years and a former on-camera talent under contract to ABC-TV, she is the academic expert trusted by some of the most discerning and notable parents in Los Angeles.

A mother of three, Donnelly leads a team of Ivy League educators, helping parents go the extra mile to ensure their teens' transition to colleges of their dreams.

Her brick-and-mortar business, Valley Prep Tutoring Services, Inc., is the hub from which all of Donnelly's brand-related products and services flow. You can visit www.valleypreptutoring.com and gatecollegesystem.com for more information.


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