A student-led startup at the University of Washington wants to help high school students apply to college through a platform that includes educational content and an AI counseling tool.
Cledge recently won the UW Dempsey Startup Competition, receiving the grand prize of $25,000. The 2-year-old company was founded by Ayan Gupta and Faraz Qureshi, both computer science students and members of UW’s Lavin Entrepreneurship Program.
Cledge’s video content educates families on college-readiness strategies. It helps students create academic and extracurricular frameworks, while establishing career goals and payment plans. The platform also features “Student Metrics,” a personalized feedback and training tool tailored to a user’s desired outcome, whether that’s admission to a prestigious Ivy League school or a community college.
Cledge collects data from students throughout their high school journey, continually adapting feedback to adjust to changes in grades, extracurricular activities, and career interests.
The platform provides users a progress report on where they stand in the context of their application and desired outcome, making recommendations on how to improve competitiveness. If a student hopes to study computer science in college, for instance, the platform might recommend they take AP Chemistry or AP Biology.
Ultimately, the data feeds into a college search tool that takes into account a student’s career path and potential earnings. The goal is to help students and parents decide if applying and attending a particular college will be a worthwhile investment, considering both academic rigor and costs, Gupta said.
Cledge’s broader mission is to ease some of the anxieties high school students face during the college admissions process. It aims to provide a roadmap for students, guiding them in their search for a college suitable to their career goals. Gupta last year highlighted some of the hyper-competitive aspects of college prep in a GeekWire guest article.
Cledge’s platform is in its minimal viable product phase, with about 30 paid users. That’s the amount of demand the company has been able to handle thus far because the tech is not ready to automate the brunt of the work, Gupta said. He’s been stepping in to provide some of the 1-on-1 college counseling on the platform, he said.
The startup plans to roll out a second version of the product this summer. The goal is to automate most features and grow adoption. It’ll be free for all users.
The long-term plan is to sell the platform through an annual subscription, charging about $240 per year. This will include add-on features such as essay review and real-time consulting.
Gupta pointed to two main competitors: independent college consultants and other tech startups. Independent college consultants can charge exorbitant fees, reaching up to $20,000, which Gupta considers unaffordable for the majority of U.S. families. He estimated that about 94% of high school students hoping to attend college cannot afford such costs.
There are a number of well-funded businesses developing algorithms to match students with colleges. Startups include Cambridge, Mass.-based CollegeVine, which raised more than $30 million. These companies offer similar college search and acceptance-prediction tools, but they lack many of Cledge’s educational resources, Gupta said.
Some startups that tried automating college counseling services in the past have either shut down or pivoted.
San Francisco-based college counseling startup KickWheel raised more than $3.75 million, but shut down in 2018, the Wall Street Journal reported. WeAdmit, originally pitched as a college guidance chatbot, pivoted in 2019 to become a marketplace that connects high school students with real-life college counselors.
Gupta said a challenge will be crowdsourcing the intangible data for the platform. This includes metrics like student life, well-being, and workload. However, Gupta emphasized the significance of such data in his own decision-making process when choosing between the UW and Georgia Tech University.
“I wouldn’t be as happy in Georgia Tech because of the workload,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t have time to work on this startup.”
Gupta previously held internships at Amazon and T-Mobile, while co-founder Qureshi interned at Amazon and Capital One. Cledge’s team includes about 20 other college students from around the country.