A Matter of Degrees: Business and philanthropy innovate to help more students reach college

The headlines are worse every day – college debt is higher than ever and the burden is being shared by students and their whole families, now to the point where society is questioning the value of a higher education degree. The New York Times just reported this sobering story: In the first three months of this year, the number of borrowers of student loans age 60 and older was 2.2 million, a figure that has tripled since 2005. That makes them the fastest-growing age group for college debt. All told, those borrowers owed $43 billion, up from $8 billion seven years ago, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.


Of course there is value to a college diploma. A new study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce says “It’s a tough job market for college graduates but far worse for those without a college education.” The unemployment rate for recent four year college graduates is 6.8 percent versus 24 percent for recent high school graduates, the report shows.

This month, as our aspiring college-bound students are knee deep in choosing and applying to colleges, they will turn to their high school guidance counselors for advice. Except the deck is stacked against them in many cases. Due to years of municipal budget cuts and increased multi-tasking, the ratio of student to guidance counselor in the U.S. is pretty daunting: 460 students to one guidance counselor on average.

This perfect storm was too much for one Maine resident who in response founded PossibilityU, a digital college admissions counselor program. “Our mission is to democratize college admission,” says PossibilityU founder Betsy Peters. “So that it is accessible and affordable to anyone who wants to attend.”

PossibilityU uses the latest in technology, with a “discovery engine” similar to how the music program Pandora works, narrowing a student’s selection of colleges based on their choices of 72 different options. It considers questions like the percentage of students who live on campus, number of majors offered, emphasis on the arts, etc., incorporates grades and SAT scores to guide students to schools where they’re likely to get in, afford it and make it through to a degree. It even has deadline reminders without the nag factor.

Students at Morse High School in Bath are taking advantage of PossibilityU in this current application cycle. Each member of the senior class (along with their parents) has his or her own account, target schools and regular reminders of what they need to do and when in order to apply, qualify for financial aid and attract scholarship money. (Watch PossibilityU in action in a recent television piece.)

Maine is ahead of the curve in innovating avenues to higher ed.  The mission of the Mitchell Institute’s Scholar program (founded by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell) is to increase the likelihood that young people from every community in Maine will aspire to, pursue and achieve a college education. They come at it through scholarships for students and mentorship from the broader community- the evidence and support that the degree matters.

The life-long benefit of higher education, coupled with the need to start saving early was acknowledged by Maine benefactor Harold Alfond several years ago when he created the Harold Alfond College Challenge. A first-in-the-nation act of philanthropy, Mr. Alfond worked with the Finance Authority of Maine to arrange for a $500 gift in a 529 account for every baby born in Maine (until the child’s first birthday). The program is still young enough that those babies are just entering kindergarten.

Who knows, by the time this digital generation is digging into their college applications, online college admissions programs like PossibilityU might be a part of every guidance counselor’s toolkit helping to put affordable college in reach of more aspiring young people.


About christengraham

President of Giving Strong, Inc. Christen advises businesses, foundations and families for how to make a greater social impact.