How Playlists Help College Hopefuls, Overwhelmed Advisers

Mytonomy, a D.C.-area video startup, aims to connect students with college and career advice from near-peers and other role models

Lucia Melgarejo, a Stanford student from Virginia, posted eight testimonials, including two in Spanish, including one offering first-generation parents advice on the college admissions process.
National Journal
Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
Oct. 16, 2013, 2 a.m.

Pretty much every teen­ager — and her par­ents — needs help with the col­lege ad­mis­sions pro­cess. Which schools would be a reach, and which would be a safe bet? Should she study be­fore tak­ing the SAT, and if so, how much? What fin­an­cial aid might she be eli­gible for? What kind of es­say top­ic would move her to the top of ad­mis­sions pile?

Stu­dents of­ten an­swer these ques­tions with the help of on­line in­form­a­tion, from The Prin­ceton Re­view’s col­lege re­cruit­er quiz to Col­lege Con­fid­en­tial’s stu­dent mes­sage boards. But teens who are the first in their fam­il­ies to ap­ply to col­lege of­ten don’t even know what ques­tions to ask, says Gerry Oxx, a vet­er­an high school coun­selor at Hec­tor God­inez Fun­da­ment­al High School in Santa Ana, Cal­if. At God­inez, 97 per­cent of stu­dents are Latino, 84 per­cent are low-in­come, and most par­ents have a high school edu­ca­tion or less. Al­though Oxx coaches small groups of stu­dents through the col­lege pro­cess each year, with a case­load of 500, he’s spread thin.

Oxx was thrilled to learn of Mytonomy, a Chevy Chase, Md.-based star­tup that’s build­ing something like You­Tube for the high school-to-col­lege trans­ition. The com­pany — which takes its name from the word “autonomy” — has as­sembled an on­line lib­rary of more than 2,800 ad­vice videos and writ­ten con­tent cre­ated by high school coun­selors, their star pu­pils and oth­er role mod­els. There’s an em­phas­is on un­der­served minor­ity voices, and many videos are in Span­ish.

High-achiev­ing low-in­come stu­dents are un­der­rep­res­en­ted in the na­tion’s most se­lect­ive col­leges. That may be partly be­cause they lack ac­cess to rel­ev­ant col­lege ap­plic­a­tion in­form­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to re­search led by Stan­ford eco­nom­ics pro­fess­er Car­oline Hoxby. Geor­getown’s An­thony Carne­vale, dir­ect­or of its Cen­ter on Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force, found that since 1995 more than 30 per­cent of Afric­an-Amer­ic­an and Latino stu­dents with a high school grade point av­er­age high­er than 3.5 head to com­munity col­leges, com­pared to 22 per­cent of white stu­dents with the same grades. In 2011, 55 per­cent of God­inez gradu­ates went on to two-year schools, and 20 per­cent went on to four-year schools.

Oxx has found that first-gen­er­a­tion col­lege stu­dents are of­ten well served by smal­ler, lib­er­al arts schools, which en­cour­age stu­dents to ex­plore a vari­ety of sub­jects. His stu­dents might not know any­one who has at­ten­ded such a school, but through Mytonomy, they can watch God­inez alum Ro­dolfo Santana ex­plain why he chose to ma­jor in elec­tric­al en­gin­eer­ing live from his Uni­on Col­lege dorm room in Schenectady, N.Y. “Cur­rently, we’re do­ing cir­cuits,” Santana says in one video, hold­ing up a chip he’s us­ing in his pro­gram­ming class. In an­oth­er video, he de­scribes what it’s like to go col­lege on the East Coast.

Vinay Bhar­gava, a former Google em­ploy­ee, co-foun­ded Mytonomy in 2011 along with his child­hood friend Sean Burke, a coun­selor at Thomas Jef­fer­son High School for Sci­ence and Tech­no­logy, a mag­net school in north­ern Vir­gin­ia. Burke’s sub­urb­an stu­dents faced a dif­fer­ent in­form­a­tion gap: They were ter­ri­fied that their lives would be over if they didn’t get in­to their dream school, and they needed more in­form­a­tion about STEM col­lege ma­jors.

Over time, Mytonomy users have con­trib­uted videos like Santana ad­dress­ing all sorts of ques­tions, from how to pre­pare for a job in­ter­view to how to deal with par­ent­al pres­sure. Videos ad­dress­ing the same ques­tion can get re­pet­it­ive, but that doesn’t both­er Bhar­gava. “We want to have as many dif­fer­ent voices an­swer­ing the same ques­tion,” he says. “The thing about col­lege ac­cess is that it’s the same set of ques­tions every year. It’s new people and new cir­cum­stances, but the pro­cess is the same.”

The con­tent can be ex­per­i­enced in two ways. Any­one can re­gister to watch Mytonomy’s videos on the site or on the re­cently launched iPhone app (the An­droid ver­sion is in pro­cess). By re­gis­ter­ing, view­ers have the op­por­tun­ity to con­trib­ute their own videos and fol­low top­ics that in­terest them, as you would fol­low a per­son on Twit­ter. Be­fore they’re pos­ted, videos are vet­ted by Mytonomy’s staff.

Schools can pur­chase Mytonomy PLUS, which al­lows coun­selors to cre­ate playl­ists for stu­dents to watch and track who has com­pleted them. The star­tup has entered pi­lot re­la­tion­ships with Oxx’s school, Burke’s school and Ar­ling­ton County Pub­lic Schools, and cus­tom­er re­la­tion­ships with KIPP DC, a pub­lic charter school; The Lab School of Wash­ing­ton, a private school for stu­dents with learn­ing dis­ab­il­it­ies; and Yong­san In­ter­na­tion­al School of Seoul, a private school in South Korea. Even­tu­ally, Mytonomy will make money by selling its premi­um product to high schools, which pay about $2 to $3 per stu­dent per year. For now, Mytonomy re­lies on in­vest­ments from groups like ven­ture phil­an­thropy firms.

Mytonomy’s 2- to 5-minute videos are am­a­teur af­fairs, shot by smart­phone or com­puter cam­cord­er. Their qual­ity var­ies. Some speak­ers speak clearly and gaze straight in­to the cam­era, oth­ers mumble and fid­get. Some video­graph­ers have ad­ded ex­tra ele­ments, like pop-up text. One video, in which a Yale stu­dent talks about din­ing hall food, seems to have been shot in a sup­ply closet — in de­fi­ance of all 13 of Yale Col­lege’s ab­surdly pho­to­gen­ic din­ing halls.

The most com­pel­ling videos have a con­fes­sion­al qual­ity. “Be­cause my pro­nun­ci­ation is I guess, pretty good, people don’t’ really un­der­stand that I’m com­pletely from a dif­fer­ent coun­try. A lot of people think I was born here,” Haruka Na­k­agawa, a Ja­pan­ese stu­dent at George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity, says when asked to de­scribe a chal­lenge she’s faced. Na­k­agawa goes on to de­scribe how awk­ward it is when she has to ask Amer­ic­an friends to ex­plain a word to her, and her fear of pub­lic speak­ing.

Strictly in­form­a­tion­al videos can be a snooze — which is a shame, be­cause they con­vey im­port­ant pre­par­a­tion in­form­a­tion. “That’s where the adults come in,” Oxx says. Us­ing Mytonomy PLUS, he can dir­ect stu­dents in his col­lege prep ses­sions to the videos rel­ev­ant to that week’s dis­cus­sion, or point in­di­vidu­als to videos that re­flect their col­lege as­pir­a­tions.

Not all high school coun­selors Mytonomy ap­proaches are ex­cited about the concept. The na­tion­wide stu­dent-coun­selor ra­tio at pub­lic schools is 470 to 1, col­lege pre­par­a­tion of­ten loses out to aca­dem­ic guid­ance and men­tal health as a pri­or­ity, and many over­burdened coun­selors doubt they have time to learn to use a new tool.

Mytonomy wants high school coun­selors to see the videos as a way to provide stu­dents and fam­il­ies with in­form­a­tion 24 hours a day. But the truth is that the tool is most ef­fect­ive when mod­er­ated by a pro­fes­sion­al like Oxx, who knows that the col­lege ap­plic­a­tion pro­cess isn’t just about meet­ing dead­lines. It’s about help­ing teen­agers make adult de­cisions about their fu­ture.

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