How Can Data Increase College Access for All?

There are real questions about the value of a college education.  Is it worth the debt that students take on?  Does it prepare students for today’s or tomorrow’s work environments?  Is a portfolio a better for getting jobs than a GPA?  As I’ve been providing my own kids with an eclectic education outside of traditional schooling, whether or not they go to college is certainly on the table.
These are the kinds of questions that belong to the privileged.  At least for now.  Humanists looking at what learning should be like, politicians making hay, pundits garnering attention with shocking statistics and predictions, even families choosing alternative education paths – all have the luxury of hypothesizing and even experimenting with the goals, building blocks, and methodologies of learning.
Not everyone has that freedom or that power.
For many students, college is not a nice-to-have but the only way to gain entry to middle-class jobs.  Lofty questions about the value of a degree are uninteresting as compared to immediate issues of getting into and succeeding in college.  In January, the White House and Department of Education convened an eclectic group of data aficionados to take a serious look at how technology can help tackle those very real and immediate concerns.
The 2014 Education Datapalooza was organized by Richard Culatta, the director of Educational Technology for the Department of Education, who combined the critical elements of entrepreneurship, technological insight, Internet era innovation, and grounded pragmatism to showcase the potential for technologists to make a concrete impact on real barriers to college success.  What is particularly powerful about the Datapalooza, and indeed the overall approach of the current administration towards open data and innovation, is that it sets audacious goals while fostering an environment for entrepreneurial solutions that together provides the tools to achieve them.  Rather than asking for bids from individual organizations to build heavy weight “solutions” to the problem of college access, this approach offers a collaboration to unlimited numbers of researchers, entrepreneurs, and technologists to create the tools and building blocks that increase the power of students and families to access a college education.
The result?  Inspiring.  No, really.  Both in the immediate and longer term, the potential for public/private collaboration using what we have learned about crowd-sourcing and big data and the emergent properties of the Internet were evident in the presentations.
For example, College Abacus created a service to personalize the potentially misleading “average” information that families receive about potential colleges such as costs, loan defaults, graduation rates and so on helping students to make financially informed decisions when choosing a school. 2U uses technology and thoughtful user experience design to better engage and educate students online.  Student Success Academy combines automation and crowd-sourced school counseling to give high school students the personal counseling time they need to make effective college choices.  Technology leader Linked-In presented their student program that leverages Linked-In data entered by members regarding their educational background and later career outcomes.
You can check out the full list of presentations here to see the breadth of projects presented: from 4-week Data Jam agile developments to mature business developments.  Then consider how data (and really big data) could fuel the tools that give students, teachers, and families more power and freedom.  Finally, share those ideas – what are the issues and obstacles to college access that students could overcome with the right tools and information?
One of the great ideas to share comes from Bror Saxberg, Chief Learning Officer at Kaplan, talking about the importance of learning science- don’t spend more, but spend smart.


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