A Tech Solution to College Retention? 3 Startups Vie for $5M Prize

Public and private-funded efforts are underway to reimagine student engagement in higher ed.

Higher education is evolving, powered by new technologies to engage students in new ways. Online learning is paving the way for change, giving students more options about how they learn. But the business side of higher ed hasn’t evolved quite as rapidly.

Several institutions are facing harsh financial realities: They can't keep students on track to graduate, and they're having to make difficult decisions to keep the business end afloat.

But help is on the way. A marketplace of ideas has developed around tech solutions to higher ed retention problems.

In 2014, the Robin Hood Foundation — New York’s largest poverty-fighting organization — launched the Robin Hood College Prize, a competition to discover practical technology solutions that help community college students with remedial needs stay on track to graduation.

Now, three startups — Beyond 12, the Education Advisory Board and Kinvolved — are pioneering new approaches to keeping students engaged at school, fueled by an ambitious $5 million prize at the end.

The winning solution must help students stay enrolled and get their degree within two to three years.

According to Robin Hood's website: "Though the goal of the Prize is audacious — to roughly double the graduation rate of full-time students with remedial needs by fifteen percentage points in three years — our three finalist teams all have innovative approaches to achieving this goal. We’re excited to see how their interventions fair with CUNY students this Fall."

The two-year evaluation of each startups' tech solution begins in August, ending during the 2017–2018 school year. A grand prize of $3.5 million will be awarded to the company with the best track record through October 2018; cash awards of $500,000 and $1 million will be given to the runners up.

Robin Hood is not alone in its efforts to stimulate new ideas to keep higher ed graduates on track.

The U.S. Department of Education launched the First in the World Competition in 2014, distributing $75 million in September to 24 higher ed institutions with projects that could improve college access and completion rates. California launched a similar initiative in March, backing 14 state institutions and their plans with $50 million.

Interest in the field has also attracted private funding. Even Shark Tank co-host Mark Cuban has gotten in on the action, investing his own money in companies with tech solutions to keep college students on track to graduate within four years — which, he told Bloomberg Business, should make solid business sense to higher ed.

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Jul 29 2015

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