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3 Ideas to Improve Higher Education From The Chronicle’s Fourth Annual Version of ‘Shark Tank’

3 Ideas to Improve Higher Education From The Chronicle’s Fourth Annual Version of ‘Shark Tank’
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Austin, Tex.

The Chronicle’s Shark Tank: Edu Edition returned to the South by Southwest EDU conference in March to weigh in on three ideas for improving higher education. The pitches came from a religion professor, a finance entrepreneur, and a leader from a major philanthropy known for its scholarship programs.

One of the ideas is an assessment called Prof Fit that screens and ranks candidates for faculty positions based on whether they have the traits that show they’d be good teachers. Another is a financial- and college-planning app, Edquity, designed to identify factors that often derail low-income students from completing college. And the third is a tool called GradSnapp that could be useful to counselors at scholarship programs, college-access organizations, and schools to keep track of the financial, academic, and “life happens” challenges their students are facing.

The audio of the session has been posted; listen to it here.

As in the previous three years, the “sharks” — Paul Freedman, co-founder of the educational-technology studio Entangled Ventures; Jason Jones, director of educational technology at Trinity College and a contributor to The Chronicle’s ProfHacker blog; and this reporter — offered no money. But we — along with the audience and the moderator, The Chronicle’s Scott Carlson — did weigh in with plenty of questions.

Apparently that feedback had an impact. At least one of our contestants, D. Jason Slone, whose faculty-screening tool drew some hard questions from the sharks and outright hostility from some in the audience, has since decided to shift focus. In the higher-education market, his company will now concentrate on the hiring of adjuncts. “Way less resistance from faculty,” he noted in an email message last week.

And while we’re hardly taking credit for it, another of our contestants made news this week: David Helene, co-founder and chief executive of Edquity, won a $25,000 Education Innovation Challenge Prize from the Lumina Foundation.

Our final contestant was Oscar Sweeten-Lopez, president of the College Success Tools arm of the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, which developed GradSnapp.

Helene’s pitch: Having previously run a nonprofit college-access organization and worked in finance, Helene promoted Edquity’s ability to help low-income students identify colleges that are the best for them financially, and provide financial-management tools they can use during college.

The sharks’ take: Freedman saw it as sound recognition of the growing role finances are playing in college choice, but asked how the tool could help students resolve financial issues that arise. Helene said his company planned to develop a system for feedback to the colleges and high schools, which would be the prime market for the product. I wondered how the tool would develop the students’ financially appropriate college lists, given the complexity and variety of student-aid policies. Helene acknowledged that challenge, but noted that the Edquity algorithm would give extra weight to colleges that provide food pantries, emergency grants, and other programs that could help lower-income students. (On the audio, his pitch begins at 3:25.)

Slone’s pitch: Arguing that the current system for hiring faculty members is inefficient and “doesn’t tell you much about the teaching ability” of a prospective candidate, Slone, who is a professor of religious studies at Georgia Southern University, contended that a screening tool assessing candidates on traits like thoughtfulness and care for others would improve the process and make it less prone to cronyism or discrimination.

The sharks’ take: Jones questioned whether the screening test could really be reliable, and Freedman was intrigued by the company’s plan to study its effectiveness. Slone said his company planned to compare evaluations from Prof Fit with teaching evaluations. One audience member was more dubious, calling it “a terrible idea” because, in her view, candidates’ research profiles were more valid indicators of a professor’s abilities. “You might not be our target client,” Slone replied. (On the audio, his pitch begins at 20:45.)

Sweeten-Lopez’s pitch: Building on its 15-year experience, the Dell Scholars program believes the software tools it has created to help its counselors keep up relationships with its scholarship recipients could also be useful to other organizations with a similar focus.

The sharks’ take: Since Dell was charging just a nominal cost for the licensing, Jones wondered why the foundation didn’t just make it free. Sweeten-Lopez said the foundation isn’t looking to make a profit or even recoup its costs of development, but it does believe clients will be more invested in using the tool to its fullest capacity if they’re spending money on it. (On the audio, his pitch begins at 40:32.)

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at goldie@chronicle.com.

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