(Photo by Flickr user Chris Smith, used under a Creative Commons license)
Cashing in on good grades.
That’s the idea behind Raise.me, an early-stage startup that helps high school students earn microscholarships for doing well in class. The San Francisco-based startup with a Philadelphia footprint also has the backing of some big names, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Facebook and the University of Pennsylvania.
Here’s how it works.
When students log in to Raise.me, they see a list of goals and tasks listed by different colleges. Students then enter their achievements (varsity sports, volunteering, AP U.S. history, etc.) — and their earnings are instantly displayed in their portfolio. When students are finally about to head to college, they’ll be able to redeem the microscholarships they’ve earned over the last four years. Colleges or other institutions are the ones putting up the money.
"It’s about bridging the gap between low-income and affluent students."
It’s a new model for financial aid.
Founded as Raise Labs in 2012 by three friends, Preston Silverman, George Kirkland and Dave Schuman, Raise.me started out with an idea: The U.S. offers billions of dollars for scholarships and grants but these are only offered during the end of high school when students have already made up their minds on what college to attend.
For most students from lower income backgrounds, this is far too late.
For Silverman, who came from a family where he was the first to go to a traditional college, Raise.me is a startup he hopes will help students have better access to higher education. “Our end goal is to create more and equal access to education,” he said. “A lot of students and families are intimidated with the tuition prices of colleges and universities, and do not understand how to access scholarship funding.”
It’s a space other startups are starting to fill. Consider Scholly, a Philly-based app that helps students find more traditional scholarship offerings.
Raise.me helps students start thinking about college as early as 9th grade. Moreover, it gamifies the college application experience, by challenging students to do microtasks that ultimately build up to a better chance of not only getting into a college but also paying for it. For instance, you can earn $600 for getting a B in English, or earn $400 for actively volunteering in your community.
Six months after learning more about the education landscape and validating their idea through conversations with schools, the Raise.me team applied to the Imagine K12 education technology accelerator in California in 2012. They then decided to participate in 2013 Milken-Penn GSE Education Business Plan Competition, where they won first place and received more than $25,000 in seed funding.
Afterwards, Raise Labs stayed connected to the Philly edtech scene, becoming a member of the inaugural class of startups in the Education Design Studio (EDSi) incubator. That program offered feedback from Penn Graduate School of Education (GSE) professors, as well as outside entrepreneurs and investors. Since then, Raise.me has also received funding from the Wharton Social Venture Fund.
Raise.me had its private beta in December 2013 to collect feedback from teachers and students before launching publicly in August 2014.
Currently, Raise.me is partnered with over 50 colleges, and is being used by more than 21,000 high school students from all over the U.S.
In the Philadelphia area, Raise.me has already partnered with Temple University, Franklin and Marshall, University of Delaware, Cedar Crest College and Penn State University.
"People are thinking of new ways to do things, and thinking about how they can leverage technology."
That’s partly the work of Amanda Schwab, the Raise.me marketing associate and Penn GSE student.
“Raise.me is important for students who have parents that aren’t too familiar with the process,” Schwab said. “It’s about bridging the gap between low-income and affluent students.”
Aside from the microscholarship challenges, Raise.me also gives students an opportunity to get to know colleges better, giving students digestible information about what a college is looking for and what the demographic is.
It’s a win-win situation for the colleges as well, since they get a chance to see which students are following them, and recruit them through the Raise.me database.
The Future of Raise.me
In the long run, Raise.me CEO Preston Silverman hopes to continue building more partnerships, and hopefully getting more corporations and foundations involved in the microscholarships business as well.
In these early stages of Raise.me, Silverman talked about the importance of getting early adopters, securing partnerships, and being persistent in finding users, and just continually reaching out to users.
“People are thinking of new ways to do things, and thinking about how they can leverage technology,” Silverman said of the education sector. “It has taken longer than other industries but it feels like the time is finally here.”