Interview | Betsy Peters Looks within PossibilityU

The team behind PossibilityU, a college admissions assistance company, recognized that despite the volumes of information available to students about selecting a path beyond high school — there is a growing guidance gap. The scope of the guidance office is extensive and the ratio of students to guidance professional has grown – the average is now 460 students to 1 counselor. “With these odds, we are effectively asking a 17 year old to make a million-dollar decision about their future with only thirty-eight minutes of decision support,” says Betsy Peters, CEO and founder of PossibilityU (pictured above). “In recent years, policy makers have shifted focus from high school graduation rates to post-secondary success,” says Betsy, who says that a high school diploma is no longer sufficient for students to meet the demands of the 21st-century global economy. But most of our high school guidance offices are under-resourced when it comes to providing parents, students and administrators with the support they need to succeed during this time of transition, according to Betsy. “Technology will be a game changer for the guidance office in many ways. It has the power to democratize the admission process and to more effectively connect students with the post-secondary opportunities where they will thrive,” she says. Here, Betsy explores the possibilities for students looking toward their future.

Victor: It seems self-evident, but what does the name mean?

Betsy: One of the fundamental building blocks of our company is that each of us possesses a unique form of genius. Our name represents a vision for unlocking that potential through education.

Victor: What is it? Who created it?

Betsy: PossibilityU is an online college knowledge program designed to give students support, context and transparency around their educational path post-high school.

We blend big data about colleges, a multi-media curriculum plus a powerful recommendation engine to personalize each student’s path to the college where they will thrive – academically, socially and financially.

We are a force multiplier for high schools and community based organizations and, an alternative to high cost college consultants for families.

PossibilityU was created by college admission experts and Internet architects who saw the opportunity to use technology to democratize access to great college advice for all students.

Victor: What does it do? What are the benefits?

Betsy: PossibilityU helps schools deliver a personalized college admission curriculum in an engaging, effective manner to students and their families.

Our curriculum engages and inspires students on their path from aspiration to acceptance and enrollment. Each student can work at their own pace beginning as early as freshman year to connect their goals to a plan using our tools, assignments and quizzes. The school has access to student progress through the program allowing them to provide encouragement, mentoring or intervention to individuals or groups of students.

PossibilityU also features a powerful set of data-driven tools to simply deliver best-in-class decision support to any school, student, and family:

College Discovery Engine – a Pandora-like recommendation engine that helps students uncover colleges they may not have otherwise considered based on 78 characteristics.

Personalized Heat Maps – plot a student’s chances of getting in and getting aid at the colleges of their choice. Suggests alternatives to “reach schools” where the student may have better chances for admission.

Our College Planner – college application project management tool integrates automatic deadlines and checklists with SMS, e-mail and UI triggers to keep students on top of the game and remove the nag factor for parents and mentors.

Parent dashboards -a top-down view keeps parents update on progress and removes the “nag factor”.

Victor: How is it unique from others, and what others might we be talking about?  

Betsy: At its core, PossibilityU is next generation college decision support. While there are other free on-line products available, none use a blended learning approach including video tutorials and personalized forecasting tools to guide students to their best matches.

Our curriculum was designed by highly qualified college admission and financial aid experts to reduce the stress around the process. Our multimedia lessons provide clear, engaging instruction about of the items a student can control in the process while diminishing focus on the items that they cannot. The lessons contain strategies and how-to’s refined over years of experience coaching students through the process from public and private schools, with and without the support of parents.

We use a relational, context-aware recommender algorithm that focuses on inferred behavioral and psychological patterns based on factors similar to those identified by the Harvard Strategic Data Project’s College-Going Indicators. It recommends colleges in much the same way that the Pandora music engine recommends music – blending 78 different factors to match student data and preferences with the academic, social and financial characteristics of over 4,000 colleges in the US. From there, our innovative heat maps visually depict admission and grant aid probabilities at both the individual college level and for the student’s portfolio of colleges in order to maximize a student’s chances of finding a great match.

Our partner schools appreciate the extra leverage the program brings them as a part of the intense and complex college guidance process – particularly how we engage the students and parents to take control of the process and in our insistence in including the financial components of the decision in our curriculum.

Victor: When was it developed? What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?

Betsy: PossibilityU was developed during 2011 after an experience as a school board member lead us to Gates Foundation and NOSCA (National Office of School Counselor Advocacy) research about the growing guidance gap.

We launched our first school in February 2012, were selected as an innovator by SIIA (Software and Information Industry of America) in May 2012, and became an “app” on the Pearson Powerschool system shortly thereafter.

Victor: Where did it originate? Where can you get it now?

Betsy: The company is based in Maine a state with a long history of leveling the playing field of access to technology in education. It is available to any school interested in sending students to U.S. colleges and is currently deployed in schools in Maine, Massachusetts, New York and California.

Victor: How much does it cost and what are the options?

Betsy: We price our program on a per-student basis and help schools to implement “best practices” in deployment and professional development.

Our goal is to make PossibilityU accessible to as many students as possible and to help schools innovate their services to students in this often overlooked, but mission critical function. We are keenly focused on moving the needle from 33 percent of students with a degree post-high school closer to our country’s target of 60-70 percent.

Victor: Got examples?

Betsy: We’ve been thrilled to see the usage patterns across our various partner schools. Engagement levels are high (75-86 percent for students) and students are spending 10- 20 minutes on the site at a time.

One of our schools in Massachusetts with an intense college going culture is using PossibilityU to link college aspirations to decisions students make throughout their high school career, beginning in 9th grade. An entertaining radio interview with the principal of that high school is here (28:12):

In Maine, at Bath high school, seniors are highly engaged with the program to determine the schools that are likely to give them the most financial aid. This New England Cable News piece shows how a student and a guidance counselor are using PossibilityU (2:19) :

Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for and not for?

Betsy: We developed PossibilityU from a holistic perspective, looking at all of the facets of the decision a student is being asked to make at age 17. We built a curriculum that could answer the 80 percent of questions that all students have and provide our tools, guided assignments and professional development to tailor the program around the other 20 percent.

In doing so we’ve created a guided curriculum that can be used to support all levels of students whether they are bound for 2 or 4 year schools, selective or non-selective environments.

Our partner schools tell us it is particularly helpful with their first generation students and for degreed parents who have not been through the process since they applied to college 20-plus years prior. It is optimized for grades 10-12, though many schools with strong college going cultures are using it with their freshmen as well.

Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days?

Betsy: This is an exciting time in education, filled with change and promise.

Maine has been one-to-one for years. We’ve struggled to find the content to make the technology come alive. But that is all changing with the flurry of new approaches to learning like Virtual High School, Virtual Nerd, Khan Academy and their edtech ilk.

Last night I watched my two boys (6 and 7) finish a library book on Greek mythology, log-in and watch a 10-minute lecture on the Titans on iTunesU and then proceed to debate each other on why Cronus ate his babies. This, I believe, is passion at work – which is when learning is fun. I think our roles as parents and as educators are changing from being sources of information to mentors and, in the best-case scenario to sources of wisdom.

I think technology is beginning to facilitate that change for all parties involved and I believe it can have massive impact on the future.

Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating PossibilityU?

Betsy: I have my own story about the college search process – I had to find substantial financial aid to fund my education and learned how to navigate the process for both undergrad and graduate school so I left both with only $5,000 in debt.

But more importantly, my rather non-linear path to my degrees, which included a formative study abroad in Kenya, proved to me that it is not what you study or where you study it that counts. Rather it is the ability to master the meta-skills of learning – how to learn, how to analyze, how to write and how to teach – that are the key pieces you take away from formal education. In my experience, with the right dedication to academics, you’ll develop those skills alongside any subject you allow yourself to get passionate about.

At PossibilityU we are constantly asking ourselves how we can illuminate paths for those who are still seeking discovery and make the process more efficient for those who are seeking a direct path.

Victor: How does PossibilityU address some of your concerns about education?

Betsy: Our design philosophy is to put the student in charge, but to empower their support ecosystem. By using personalization, persuasive technology and engaging multi-media we seek to modernize the way this complex decision is made and support all of the players involved.

PossibilityU also seeks to add dimension to what is often considered simply an academic matching problem. True, grades and test scores determine much of the college admission game. But there are other intellectual, financial and social components that factor into this complex and often serendipitous decision for students. Our goal is to humanize the process by integrating those into our program and letting students know that they have control over most of them.

Finally, we want to use enabling technology and new service delivery models to scale what works in college counseling so we can become a true democratizing force in college admission.

Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?

Betsy: Given the pace of change in the world, I think we are all destined to become life-long learners. I think that college will be one step in a series of certifications that will communicate skills, interests and competencies.

Therefore I think all of us will increasingly be required to manage the arc of our learning career – from as early as grade school and all throughout our working careers.

The educational innovations that succeed will be the ones that inspire students to own their learning at the earliest age possible – and the ones that provide bridge-building context to the next stages of our lives.

Victor: Got any quirky stories or interesting bits? 

Betsy: In my work on the school board and as the founder and chief sales person of PossibilityU, I have the opportunity to see schools wrestling to implement technology. I am constantly struck by Alan November’s characterization of technology as “the thousand dollar pencil” when simply thrown into our factory based approach to school culture.

21st century schools will require culture and mindset changes, not simply technology changes. We have to engineer innovation in programs, processes and tools.

Though there are times when I’ve envied the Acme Pencil Corporation’s go to market process. I wonder how many bugs they had to address before a launch?!

Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of PossibilityU? 

Betsy: PossibilityU sets students up for success at college through expert curriculum and data driven tools. We are a force multiplier that allows a school to expose a larger group of students to college counseling and tailor a deeper level of support and intervention to individuals or groups of students that require additional mentoring or intervention during the transition to college.

Victor: What makes you say that?

Betsy: Our expert curriculum plus recommendation platform are designed around the key factors that drive college persistence and increase the chances of getting a degree – student goals plus motivation, learning style, financial resources and lifestyle choices. We use persuasive technology for first line, digital interventions and save counselor bandwidth for richer, more impactful interactions.

By partnering with schools to individualize this process we can get as close as possible to treating each student’s set of post-high school possibilities distinctly and in-depth to set them up for their best chances of success.

Victor: Thank you, Betsy!

Betsy: Victor, it was my pleasure – I am grateful for your time and support.


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