Focusing on Students

Opportunities await for those who serve the college-bound crowd.
This story appears in the September 2008 issue of Startups. Subscribe »
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On one end of the college-planning spectrum, advanced students are competing for coveted spots at the top universities. The CollegeBoard, a nonprofit association dedicated to helping students get a college education, recently reported that more than 15 percent of the public high school class of 2007 achieved a grade of 3 or higher--

which is thought to be an indication of college success--on at least one advanced-placement test. In 2002, that figure was less than 12 percent.

On the other end of the spectrum are high school dropouts who have given up on a higher education. In its May 2008 issue of Educational Leadership, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development reported that the U.S. high school system has largely been neglected. While governments focus on elementary learning, more than 1.2 million U.S. high school students drop out every year, according to the ASCD.

Somewhere in between, entrepreneurs are working to open doors for students around the country. From consulting firms that help students find the best school for their needs to tutoring companies that prepare them for standardized tests, the opportunities for helping students achieve their goals are boundless.

With more than 40 years of experience in senior leadership roles for major universities, Lee Stetson has witnessed the changing landscape of college admissions, particularly over the past 15 to 20 years, as well as the surge of startups catering to applicants. "By and large, it's been a positive development, because secondary schools are stretched budgetarily," says Stetson, former dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania and founder and CEO of Stetson College Advisory, an admissions consulting firm. "Counseling is mixed in those environments: Some is exceptionally good and some is not because the student-counselor ratio is 500- or 600-to-1. It's hard to personalize attention with that kind of caseload."

Stetson's business maintains only a handful of clients to provide more focused attention. But some entrepreneurs are going big with college planning and admissions services, profiting not only from their ventures, but also from the knowledge that they're making a difference in young students' lives.

Student To Student
Blake Spiers, 24, and Brian Hosokawa, 25, have taken a novel approach to the admissions process, offering an insider's view of college campuses from those who know them best: current students. As a graduate of the University of Southern California, Spiers found that many of the questions he had as a college freshman weren't covered in the manuals or campus tours. So last year, he and Hosokawa started Irvine, California-based

Users submit a question about a particular school, and the question goes to a current student at the college or university who's experienced in the topic. "We wanted to change the application and college research process," says Spiers, who offsets his free service with advertising revenue. "Right now, you have guidebooks, tours and counselors. Does it really paint the full picture of what the campus is like?"

With student experts at 200 universities, Spiers and Hosokawa expect to add several hundred more schools and grow their student membership base by 75 percent.

Admissions Coach
Katherine Cohen, a Yale Ph.D. and admissions expert, identified a similar niche 10 years ago when she started IvyWise, a New York City-based admissions counseling company.

IvyWise's specialists coach student members through the entire college search and admissions process for schools anywhere in the world. Beginning at the high school level, students get help with everything from test prep and essay writing to becoming a better college applicant.

With IvyWise earning more than $1 million in annual revenue, Cohen, along with business advisor and StartUps columnist Liz Hamburg (read her "Launch Pad" column on page 116), decided to launch ApplyWise, a sister company expected to earn $400,000 in sales in 2008. As an online college admissions counseling program, ApplyWise offers organizational tools, interactive exercises and other materials to help students and parents navigate through the admissions process with ease.

Cohen suggests prospective entrepreneurs consider how they can best help students before jumping into admissions counseling. "There are more and more businesses [of this kind] popping up," says Cohen. "The challenge is, you need to know how to work well with students."

You can always start small by working with just one or two local colleges, then build from there. Remember that you will need a solid understanding of colleges' admission policies and procedures in order to offer the best advice to applicants. If you don't, but you like the idea of helping students through the admission process, consider obtaining a certificate in college admissions counseling. Doing so will teach you the ins and outs of helping students with financial planning, entrance exams and more.

Financial Guru
Financing is always an issue for college applicants--and college isn't getting any less expensive. Startups can earn money helping students find the funding they need to get through college while also helping parents stay ahead of the game. "The cost of college is going up at a 7 percent inflation rate," says Stacy Francis, 34, a certified financial planner and the founder of New York City-based financial planning firm Francis Financial. "Parents are planning for tuition before their baby is born." Francis started her fee-only, noncommission-based firm in 2003 and projects sales of more than $600,000 this year. "Helping parents navigate ways to save for education is an area that will continue to grow tremendously," she says. Another pressing need: expert advice on how to get the most financial aid possible. "This area is ripe for individuals to build a business," says Francis.

Get savvy in things like Coverdell Education Savings Accounts and 529 plans, student aid and need-based grants, and you'll be in a good position to help students and their parents understand college finances. Also think about how you can help students avoid credit card debt during college--an all-too-common malady. "We're seeing credit card debt like we've never seen in history," says Francis. "Advisors are bringing in consultants to educate these kids so they have solid financial footing when they go out in the world."

All For The Students
It goes without saying that to be successful as a college-planning entrepreneur--as with anyone involved in education--you need to be able to put the students before the bottom line. From there, success will surely follow. "Don't think about the money first," says Spiers. "Focus on providing something unique and invaluable to high school students. If it's affordable, they'll come back again and again."

Karen E. Spaeder is a freelance writer and the founder of bamboo clothing company Rain Frog Apparel. Contact her at
Edition: November 2016

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