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Cambridge Startup Offers Cheaper, Online College Counseling07:04
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CollegeVine co-founders, from left, Johan Zhang, Zack Perkins and Vinay Bhaskara, at the company's offices in Cambridge. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
CollegeVine co-founders, from left, Johan Zhang, Zack Perkins and Vinay Bhaskara, at the company's offices in Cambridge. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

A Cambridge startup is taking college guidance online, offering high school students and their parents a cheaper alternative to private college counseling.

But some wonder if this model is just another widening of the gap between those with access to college, and those without.

Luke Kenworthy of Seattle used CollegeVine when he was getting desperate in his senior year as he faced college applications.

"It was the two weeks before all my college applications were due. I still had 12 more schools to apply to, and I had written very few of the essays," he says.

He had applied for restricted early action at Harvard, but received a deferred admission, which meant the university would reconsider him along with the regular decision pool. Turning to his high school guidance counselors didn't seem like a solution.

"They're working with like a hundred different students, and I think most high school counselors, they don't have training with getting people into top-tier schools like the schools I was applying for," says Kenworthy.

His father suggested he seek outside help. He found it in CollegeVine, which pairs applicants with mentors in college. Kenworthy was assigned to a junior at Duke and he helped Kenworthy write, edit and rewrite his essays.

Kenworthy ended up paying for CollegeVine by himself — $1,500 for unlimited help over the two week period.

It sounds like a lot, but Kenworthy said it was much cheaper than other options he looked into, some of which would charge at least $500 per essay, if not more.

Private school students get a lot of time and attention from college guidance counselors. But public school students and their parents who can afford it often turn to private college counseling because nationwide, there are nearly 500 public school students for every guidance counselor. And they can spend a lot of money.

Patricia Hanner, who subscribed to CollegeVine for her daughter, says she was taken aback by how much other parents were spending on more traditional counseling — upwards of $15,000 per year, for all four years of high school.

CollegeVine says it can charge less because it uses technology, and because it has more clients, it can afford to make less per client.

A Brisk Business In Admissions

CollegeVine was founded four years ago by three friends in a New Jersey high school.

Co-founder Zack Perkins says they had great relationships with their counselors in high school, but realized that most public high school students don't get a lot of college guidance.

"So we were accepted early to our top colleges, and we were advising our younger peers in May," he says.

Perkins and another co-founder went to Harvard. A third went to Chicago. All of them are taking leaves of absence to work full time on their company.

The business is growing fast. In the past year, the number of employees at its Cambridge headquarters has multiplied from eight to 30. The company says it was profitable the first three years, but elected to raise money this year to hire an engineering and data team to build out its platform.

CollegeVine CEO Jon Carson says the startup is not just competing on price — it's also sharing the patterns about schools that it gathers from its thousands of customers.

"For example, there's a particular school in the Ivy League that appears to show very high preferences to leadership traits in an application. There's another school also in the Ivy League where it appears that the interest is not so much in leaders but more in ... people who have done impactful work but haven't necessarily been the head of the group," he says.

Carson says because CollegeVine gathers information from so many applicants, the company is also to help families negotiate merit-based financial aid from colleges.

He says the startup measures success by how well clients do compared to a school's acceptance rate. For example, whereas Harvard's acceptance rate is 5 percent, for CollegeVine clients it was 26 percent.

Carson says the company also measures success by making sure students find the right school for them, and by working with students as early as ninth grade to help them discover and develop their interests and passions.

Co-founder Vinay Bhaskara says the data help them uncover unconventional advice. He asked a reporter which university produces the most software programmers at the top 100 Silicon Valley firms. It's not, as the reporter guessed, Stanford. It's San Jose State.

So if your goal is to land a job programming in Silicon Valley, Bhaskara says, you're better off going to San Jose State.

The Conundrum Of Helping Everyone

At Philips Academy in Andover, Director of College Counseling Sean Logan, himself a first-generation college student, has spent years trying to help others from disadvantaged backgrounds get into college. He welcomes the entry of a company like CollegeVine into college guidance.

"It's helping a group of kids that isn't getting help in that way, but I still think it may not be touching kids who come from the bottom half of income in the United States, and so it is creating a further divide from the kids who are in the bottom half of income versus the kids who are in the top half of income," he says.

It's a conundrum very much on the minds of the founders of CollegeVine. They say they want to work with underserved high-school students.

They point to a pilot program where the company is offering free services to high-achieving, low-income students in three magnet schools in Louisiana. The company says it hopes to work with much larger numbers of such students in the future.

Kenworthy, the Seattle student who turned to CollegeVine in desperation after his admission to Harvard was deferred, is now a freshman at Harvard. He has himself become a CollegeVine mentor. Now that he's at Harvard, he believes the most passionate students aren't necessarily the ones who get in.

"I feel like a lot of the students that do get into elite schools are the ones who are the best at gaming the system. ... A lot of the other things I did was just purely for the sake of getting into college, and I think that's encouraged."

Until the applications process changes, Kenworthy is glad to help others play the game as one of more than 600 mentors at colleges around the country that College Vine now employs.

Editor's Note: CollegeVine is an underwriter of WBUR.

Correction: Due to an editing error, Luke Kenworthy's surname was misspelled. The post has been updated. We regret the error.

This segment aired on December 19, 2017.

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Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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