More Than a Facebook Knockoff

Michigan is bring purpose-driven social networking tools to students preparing for college.
by | March 16, 2010

Russell Nichols

Russell Nichols is a GOVERNING staff writer.

Michigan's forthcoming Web-based platform that will help students and their families make college and career connections might initially sound like another Facebook knockoff. But the state insists that the Michigan College Access Portal is not a clone of Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or any other popular social networking site. In fact, ConnectEDU, the Boston-based company building the portal for $1.15 million, refuses to even call it a social network.

"It's a purpose network," said ConnectEDU President and CEO Craig Powell. "We leverage concepts of social networking, but for a defined purpose of education and career transitioning. This could not be replicated in a Facebook environment. It's tough to explain without seeing it."

By integrating social networking strategies with personalized, secure data - such as transcripts and test scores - education portals give students more control of their futures, proponents say. Massachusetts recently unveiled its college and career Web portal, which is currently being tested at 20 pilot high schools around the state. But in Michigan, some critics consider the new portal not only a missed opportunity, but also a million-dollar mistake.

"One might wonder why the state is giving money to a Boston-based developer, especially when the point of the Web site is to keep students - and jobs - in Michigan," according to an opinion piece on Michigan State University's The State News. "In a state that has to watch every penny it dishes out, investing millions into what amounts to a Michigan-themed Facebook is a risky line on the budget."

But an innovative approach with some risk might be necessary, as the nation is in the "throes of a persistent high school dropout crisis," according to a report by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston and the Alternative Schools Network in Chicago. The report states that, in 2007, nearly 6.2 million U.S. students between the ages of 16 and 24 dropped out of high school. As the nation continues to stagger in the global innovation race, state and local governments have had to find ways to keep kids on the right college and career track.

An Online Transitioning Tool

These "Web-based, one-stop shops" give students and parents access to tools they need to plan, apply and pay for college. Students can interact with guidance counselors and college recruiters. These portals also provide identity protection so schools can upload transcripts, test scores and letters of recommendation.

Through algorithms, students can make smart financial decisions and map out career paths based on their grades and real-time public-sector data, Powell said. For example, a ninth-grader might use the information to determine how many jobs will be available in a given field once he or she graduates.

"There's a lot more depth to the connectivity and the guidance," said Powell, adding that building a portal can take between 60 days and six months.

In Massachusetts, it's still early in the rollout to determine results. At one of the pilot schools, Monson High School in Monson, Mass., only two students have tried it so far, said Bob Bardwell, a counselor at Monson and secondary level vice president of the American School Counselor Association.

"We actually haven't had many students on it yet because it hasn't been as functional as we wanted it to be," he said. "Our plan is to unveil it with more juniors this coming spring. We have high hopes that it'll provide everything they say it will provide."

To have such tools available to students gives them a better sense of their options, Bardwell said. He added that he has seen the rise of online applications motivate students to apply to more schools. Proponents say these portals also reflect the Obama administration's ongoing focus on college and career readiness.

"Many of our state's governments have recognized the critical importance of moving more students to college or a post-secondary degree program in order to sustain economic growth," said former acting governor of Massachusetts Jane Swift, who joined ConnectEDU as senior vice president of government solutions and strategy.

While a purpose-based, customized Web portal for students is not a complete solution, Swift added, the site helps "address important places where most students fail."

The Million-Dollar Debate

The idea for the Michigan College Access Portal came after Governor Jennifer M. Granholm's education adviser learned that North Carolina's portal had boosted college participation among low-income students. But opponents argue that college students could have created the site themselves, and saved the state hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"Students from a Michigan school could have built such a Web site to ease the government's needs," The State News said. "These students also are most likely willing to be paid next to nothing to design the site, saving the state the ridiculous amounts of money being shoveled to the East Coast."

When asked about the portal's return on investment, Terry Stanton, public information officer for the Michigan Department of Treasury, pointed to the earning potential of students who can acquire more than a high school diploma.

"College graduates earn about a million dollars more than the average high school graduate," he said. "MiCAP will help make higher education more accessible for every student, something that is essential to building a strong economy and creating more jobs in Michigan."


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