Not long ago, Googler Vinay Bhargava (now 41) found himself at a career crossroads. So he asked for advice from teenagers at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ for short). “I want to make sure before I resign from Google that this is a good idea,” he asked the students of the Virginia magnet school.
The idea was Mytonomy.com, a hub for crowdsourced college counseling founded by Bhargava and Sean Burke, a TJ school counselor–the TJ students gave Bhargava the go-ahead to quit his job at Google and launch the site, which has since garnered about $250,000 in funding; later this month, it enters a freemium mode and begins a pilot program in some 15 public schools around the country.
The desire in this country to make good decisions when applying to college is enormous. Some form of counseling is common at many schools; among wealthier metropolitan areas, some families have been known to spend up to $30,000 a year on private counseling (though a few thousand per year is the average figure). But a single college counselor can only know so much. On the other hand, the alumni network of given high schools can be a deep pool of specialized knowledge. Only, beyond the occasional coffee-and-donuts meet-and-greet, encounters with alumni have historically been hard to come by.
“I assumed the Internet had solved this problem,” Bhargava tells Fast Company. It hadn’t. He and Burke struck on the idea of inviting alumni to contribute videos offering advice to their younger counterparts. How important is the overnight visit? Should you do early decision? How should you prep for standardized tests? The site answers all of these questions. More to the point, the site has the potential to answer them in highly personalized ways. A TJ alum who was the first in his family to go to college can hand down wisdom to a current TJ student in the same situation. “We’re really scaling alumni mentoring,” says Bhargava. Not everyone, after all, can afford a private college counselor. “We’re trying to democratize that.”
Though piloted at TJ, and currently free, Mytonomy (the name is supposed to be a play on “autonomy,” though it sounds a bit more like a term from a lit theory class) is about to undergo a change. On the 20th, it plans to enter a freemium model, with much of its content behind a paywall. Individuals can pay $250 a year for the service–“half of what Kaplan charges,” points out Bhargava–and schools and districts can negotiate licenses at a discount. “The ROI of preventing a bad decision here is very high,” says Bhargava.
Fifteen schools, including some from the DC area, Detroit, Rochester, and the Bay Area, will be shielded from the paywall for several months, as part of a pilot program. These schools are inviting alumni from their schools to submit advice-laden videos that they hope will be particularly helpful within their community; after all, the students at the DC Seed School, an overwhelmingly African-American public boarding school, may have very different questions from the students at The Palo Alto High School, another partner. If you’re a school administrator who’d like to join the ranks of this pilot program, Bhargava says it’s not too late.
What’s in it for the contributors to the site? For some, if they add four videos, a $20 Amazon gift card. More to the point, though, a sense of giving back. How many of us would like to go back and impart our wisdom with our younger selves? Entire pop songs have been written about it. In its taking-youngsters-by-the-shoulder quality, Mytonomy is not unlike Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project, if utterly different in its goals and scope. “That’s a very powerful form of storytelling, and very credible. ‘Hey, I was like you when I was younger … and it got better.’ In our case, it’s ‘Hey, I was like you, I was the first in my family who went to college, I went to NOVA [a community college], but then I went to VCU, I got a degree in Homeland Security, and now I have a job.’” (A real video on the site.)
“I know that as a senior in college, I felt I was getting a completely curated view of every college I visited,” one contributor, Kevin Pujanauski, in UVA’s Class of 2013, says. “It was always the less formal conversations after the tours or over lunch that were most valuable. To me, Mytonomy captures what was valuable about those conversations and makes them available at the click of a mouse.” Overall, Bhargava hopes that the website will show students that there are many paths to success: that just because you didn’t get into MIT or Stanford, it doesn’t mean “you’re boxed in, or your life’s over.”
When the site retreats behind a paywall, what about the student too poor to afford access? In the future, Bhargava might consider sponsorships from local businesses–“classy branding,” he says, of the “brought to you by Verizon” sort. “It’s a journey to serve everyone,” he says. “We’re a startup, we’re not gonna be perfect right away.” Currently, Bhargava and Burke watch every video uploaded to the site–1,200, currently–themselves. With a target audience like this, quality assurance is pretty essential.
“You can’t have a 14-year-old watching a random video, and having a kid at college tapping a keg,” he says.