Education TED Partners

A $5 million challenge to help community college students graduate

Ani Okkasian was the first in her family to go to college. “My parents escaped a communist country and got to the States with $700 in their pocket,” she says. And so, when she joined a TEDActive 2014 workshop held by the Robin Hood Foundation to brainstorm ways to help community college students graduate, she offered an insight from her own college experience: These students may feel like they’re floating on their own.

Community colleges offer access to higher education for more than 8 million students a year in the United States, many of them from low-income backgrounds and, like Okkasian, the first in their family to go to college. Robin Hood has identified a pattern at play on community college campuses; a large number of students require remedial classes before moving on, but only 28% of students who take them earn their degree, even 8.5 years later. Hoping to change this, Robin Hood has launched a $5 million College Success Prize—a venture capital-sized award for a technology solution to keep community college students on track to graduate in three years. The solution could help students improve their writing and problem solving, or could focus on building social and behavioral skills that are also a part of success.

It’s in the space of the social where Okkasian, who is now an adjunct professor at Woodbury University and the Marketing and Communications Manager for the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, saw an opportunity. “On a fundamental level, I identify with the type of students that Robin Hood is trying to help,” she says. “I felt it was my responsibility to participate in [the TEDActive] workshop and provide insights from firsthand experience.”

The workshop began with attendees thinking about who students in remedial classes are: How old are they? What do their lives look like outside of school? What kind of access do they have to mentorship? From there, they broke into three groups for rapid-fire brainstorming, each group scrawling an intricate tangle of Post-It notes before them.

Okkasian liked that her team brought together thinkers from different backgrounds, and noticed that everyone seemed to agree on one core idea: that letting students know they are not alone could make a difference. “We chose to focus on the idea of a small learning network for the students most at risk of dropping out,” she says. “We realized that social connections could be the conduit for content that will enable these students to succeed.”

Her team’s excitement for the idea has continued, even after TEDActive. “We have some Google hangouts scheduled,” she says. “We’re excited to put the final touches on our idea and submit it for consideration.”

They have time to polish it. The College Success Prize works something like an incubator—there are three rounds, starting with an application process that’s open through the end of June 2014. Semi-finalists will receive $40,000 in funding to get their idea rolling and, in January, three finalists will be picked to receive $60,000 more in development money, along with help from consultants ideas42. These three solutions will then be tested starting in the fall of 2015 on a sample of 2,000 CUNY community college students. Over the course of a three-year trial, finalists will receive cash as they reach target goals. Any team whose solution leads to a 15 percent increase in students graduating in three years will split a grand prize of $3.5 million.

Robin Hood’s senior vice president says the idea of the challenge is to get people with interesting insights, like Okkasian, working on the problem. “Education is the silver bullet when it comes to fighting poverty, and we want the biggest thinkers, and the most innovative developers and designers to step up to the challenge,” he says.

TEDActive attendees deep in thought at the Robin Hood College Success workshop. Photo: Sarah Nickerson

TEDActive attendees deep in thought at the Robin Hood College Success workshop. Photo: Sarah Nickerson

Just a bit of the Post-It sprawl that ensued. Photo: Sarah Nickerson

Just a bit of the Post-It sprawl that ensued. Photo: Sarah Nickerson

A group presents its ideas to the rest of the workshop. Photo: Sarah Nickerson

A group presents its ideas to the rest of the workshop. Photo: Sarah Nickerson

Read more about the remedial course problem »

Read more about the Robin Hood College Success Prize »

Read more about the Robin Hood TEDActive workshop »