By Jeanine Ibrahim
Imagine a high school basketball team that only practices 38 minutes each season -- and just how disoriented they’d play come game time. Such unpreparedness doesn’t happen with sports, but statistically it does with college prep. The average public student spends just 38 minutes of his or her entire career talking about college with a school counselor, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC).
“That’s an avoidable failure of the educational system with predictable consequences for students,” says Jose Hernandez, who often makes this basketball analogy to drive home the point. He’s the co-founder of Guided Education, a digital platform that hopes to level the path to college by offering one-on-one support to students at an affordable cost.
The idea is that, just like with sports, students who get more time with an engaged college counselor will face less frustration, self-doubt and financial illiteracy when it comes to possibly entering higher education. Hernandez and his childhood best friend Geia Reyes launched the startup in March of 2015. They’ve since worked to create an online presence and client base, securing their largest contract nine months later with a Bronx, N.Y.-based high school.
Hernandez says the college counseling problem isn't based on counselor personality; instead, it’s a numbers issue. An NACAC study shows that 35 percent of public schools reported counselor caseloads between 350 to more than 450 students per year; yet, at private schools, only 2 percent of counselors had caseloads this size.
With Guided Education, nationally accredited college counselors are paired with no more than 100 students. This not only falls below the reported median caseload for college counselors at private schools, but it allows these counselors to work a 40-hour week while dedicating 90 minutes to each student. Unlike their counterparts in high schools, the startup’s counselors spend more time with students, Hernandez says, because they don’t deal with administrative tasks or disciplinary problems.
Punctuating the mission with 'dot-education'
Guided Education’s digital program puts counselors to work with teens via email and video chat, holding at least one 45-minute session per month. They also send a weekly newsletter with ten curated articles on different topics to students, who then respond with what peaks their interests. The exercise helps gauge reading and writing skills, and counselors can better understand students’ passions to better place them with colleges that match their strengths and goals. For test prep and tutoring, counselors use the online learning platform Khan Academy. So far, one school has requested in-person meetings with counselors, which Hernandez says they’ve agreed to fulfill with a two-hour window, once a week.
Overall, the program is built to be fully web-based, which is ideal for a generation that's grown up in a digitally connected world. It’s an innovative type of virtual counseling that lives online at an innovative website domain: www.Guided.education. That's 'dot-education' (.education), not 'dot-com' (.com). Hernandez and Reyes were brainstorming names for their startup when they got stuck on the word “guide,” which led them to the domain choice.
“We were like, 'Guide, guide, guide. How do we make a pun with guide?'” recalls Hernandez. He kept repeating the past tense of the word “guided,” and they liked the sound of “Guide-Ed” or “GuidEd” for the company name. However, GuidEd.com was already taken. So they shifted to possibly using the name Guided Education -- but felt that the URL, GuidedEducation.com, was too long.
While searching a website that sells domain names, an alert popped up telling them that Guided.education was an available option.
“We did backflips,” Hernandez recalls. “It sounded great. It rolls right off the tongue.”
And so the domain helped give the founders their company’s name, says Hernandez, and it’s been a huge benefit to marketing. It pulls everything together, including the company’s business cards, which feature the URL.
“People are like, ‘Is that the whole thing? Wow, these guys must have paid a bunch of money to get this customized domain,’” Hernandez says. “It looks beautiful, and it's something totally different than what anyone else in my field is doing.”
A startup that’s business and personal
Being different is a main objective for Guided Education’s founders. Hernandez and Reyes want to shake up the current-yet-dated system that pushes some students onto the college track while keeping others behind the starting line. It’s a problem that mainly presents itself at overpopulated high schools in economically-strapped and under-resourced communities.
Hernandez and Reyes know this all too well. Together, they attended a poorly-ranked, overcrowded high school in Perth Amboy, N.J.. Despite the circumstances, however, each overcame the odds to earn Ivy League degrees and then work corporate jobs in Manhattan before launching Guided Education.
Hernandez credits some of his educational success to a great relationship with his high school counselor -- something he wants to foster for every student through Guided Education. The goal is to create meaningful connections with students over a long period of time, while keeping costs low.
"Many of our competitors offer ‘long-term’ or ‘unlimited help’ schemes, but those programs can cost thousands or tens of thousands of dollars," says Hernandez, referring to other paid options such as Kaplan or Princeton Review, which can be out of reach for financially-strapped families.
The most successful sales model for Guided Education’s founders has been to negotiate a package rate with a school and to set prices at no more than $125 per student, per month. Sometimes the school covers the entire cost; other times, they leave a small amount ($10 to $15 per month) for students to pay. The intention always is to make the program affordable to those who want, and need, to be a part of it.
“The vast majority of students want to be successful, and if they’re not, it’s because they haven’t been given the right tools to really give it a shot,” Hernandez says. “They need help visualizing themselves in college and succeeding. If they can’t do that, then college just seems so far off, and like it’s something for someone else.”
To learn more about this business, visit the website www.Guided.education.