FREEPORT, Maine — A small Freeport company wants to put each high school student’s college possibilities in a place where he or she can’t miss it: Facebook.
PossibilityU has spent more than a year fine-tuning an online matchmaker program to connect high school juniors and seniors with colleges and universities where they’re most likely to be accepted, get financial aid and enjoy themselves. Now, as the recipient of as much as $100,000 in grant money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the company is taking its show to the ubiquitous social media website Facebook, where teenagers are likely to publish more personal data than anywhere else.
“With just a little bit of student data, we can start to do some really interesting matching like Pandora, like Netflix, like eHarmony, essentially,” said PossibilityU CEO Betsy Peters, whose career included previous stops working on the ESPN and Outdoor Life Network websites. “We take quantitative data and we take preference data and we start to sift and sort signal from noise, and start to show students their best match colleges on three different dimensions — academic, social and financial.”
A student using the company’s most basic, and free, service through its main website would enter a few pieces of basic information — grade point average, SAT scores, a few colleges of interest — and receive what Peters called a “heat map.”
On one axis of the square-shaped grid, a school is rated on the student’s likelihood of being admitted; on the other, his or her likelihood of getting grant aid. The premium suite of tools features online videos about choosing the right schools, and a calculator that reports what tuition bills would likely look like once financial aid is factored in.
In addition to individual services that any high school student in the country can sign in to make use of, PossibilityU also has pacts with 15 high schools across America — from as far away as California and Texas — to augment the schools’ guidance departments.
“PossibilityU is an online program that is designed to solve the basic problem of having a 16- or 17-year-old making a $1 million choice with only 38 minutes [of average 1-on-1 time with a school guidance counselor] to do so,” Peters said.
But outreach triggers like emails — reminding students about upcoming application deadlines, for instance — weren’t always hitting their marks. And there’s nowhere else in the world where teenagers are more open about their preferences than Facebook. Peters said the social media site promises to provide PossibilityU with an explosion of personalized data that can be used to pinpoint great college matches for each user.
“This grant does a couple things for us,” Peters said. “It brings us to the channel where the students spend most of their time. We become relevant to them, we’re right there where they’re tripping over everything else. It allows us to integrate their data, and the other data that’s within Facebook, in order to make it more useful, to make the search more useful to them.
“We also have text messages that go out to them, and we have emails that go out to them,” she continued. “Surprisingly enough, they don’t answer email or look at email. So this gives us an opportunity to integrate into Facebook, where we know they are, and send reminders to the place where we know they’re always checking.”
The company could be in line to receive as much as $100,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop the Facebook application. The foundation partnered with Facebook and College Summit Inc. to use the social media engine to make college more accessible to underserved and underprivileged high schoolers. PossibilityU was one of 21 applicants to receive a portion of the $2.5 million in grant money offered by the foundation.
The Freeport firm receives $40,000 up front, with additional funding of up to $60,000 based on progress toward milestones in the project.
“We’ll help students understand their ability to get in and get aid, as well as some other interesting tools that only Facebook could give us,” she said. “So [we can begin] helping students understand where friends, and friends of friends, have gone to school, and facilitating conversations about those schools. So if they can’t go on a tour, for example, they could be speaking to someone who has experience with that school.”
Peters said her company puts teenagers’ college options right in front of them, and in some cases, surprises them.
“We had one girl from Bath who really didn’t think she stood any chance of getting into the University of Vermont, so she wasn’t even going to apply,” Peters said. “But what the heat map showed her was that not only could she get in, but she could get a good financial aid package, as well.”
Now, she said, that student is planning to attend Vermont in the fall. It’s a connection Peters hopes PossibilityU can make for thousands of other teenagers through Facebook.