Applying to college and graduate school has become such a production that an advisor is now, more often than not, heavily involved. The problem here is that this added assistance tends to, naturally, favor the wealthy, and contribute even more intensely to the inequality in higher education in America.
Enter, Stonehill Educational Consultants. The 1-year-old educational consulting firm is on a mission to make college advising available to students, no matter their financial status. In fact, Stonehill is currently running a crowdfunding campaign (until March 7) raising funds for their 2:1 program through which they advise lower-income students free of charge. I caught up with 25-year-old founder Lucy Stonehill about the company's mission, their ongoing campaign, and the future of education in America.
Elena Sheppard (ES): Tell us a little bit about Stonehill. Who started it? What's the mission?
Lucy Stonehill (LS): The idea behind Stonehill Educational Consultants really grew out of what I perceived to be a growing need that was failing to be met. Growing up in Europe, I had received numerous requests from family friends to help their children with the U.S. university-application process. I did a bit of research before I realized that the competitors in the international space were locally focused, poorly marketed, and expensively-priced.
I knew that I wanted to start a different sort of educational consulting firm. I wanted to design a web platform that utilized technology to supplement and enhance the consulting process. And I wanted to create a more affordable list of service-offerings for families and students.
But I also wanted to find a way to help very bright and ambitious students from developing countries receive the same level of treatment and guidance. Studying in the United States, for these students in particular, is like winning the golden ticket. It provides them with the connections, professional and personal growth opportunities to really do something incredible with their lives.
So I devised a two-for-one consulting model whereby for every student we advise, we take on another student entirely free of charge. And so from the desire to blend these two ideas, my hybrid social enterprise was born.
ES: What do you think about the argument that school applications should not be so intensive? Has applying to college or grad school become more about how good people are at filling out applications rather than how successful they will be as students?
On the one hand, I sympathize with those who say that simplifying the undergraduate application process would equalize the playfield for applicants. But on other hand, gaining a spot at a top-tier university is becoming more, and not less competitive. This year, Yale received almost 30,000 applications for 1,300 spots.
I think there is a strong argument to be made that candidates benefit from the lengthy and time-consuming nature of the college application process as both a rare chance for self-reflection, but also as a way to distinguish themselves from those with similar numbers through multiple essays and references which add color and character to their otherwise black-and-white profiles. The excessive essay opportunities are designed to allow the admissions representatives to distinguish the people from the paper.
I think these days to be successful in anything — whether it be applying to college, getting a job, or even finding a partner — branding yourself has become a necessary prerequisite. So, yes, representing the best version of yourself an important part of the application process. But I believe that effective self-branding, or strategic positioning as I like to think of it, enhances successful candidates’ applications and highlights their strengths, rather than masks less qualified candidates.
ES: Tell us about your 2:1 initiative. From a logistical standpoint, how do the at-need students find out about these opportunities for funding?
As this past year was our first in operation, our pro-bono outreach was relatively focused. I partnered with an organization, the Pan-African Scholar Program, started by a Harvard-student from Nairobi. Through this organization, we were able to take on students from Nigeria, Tanzania, and Kenya.
Going forward, I hope to partner with schools, youth organizations and non-profits located in a variety of geographic areas. This spring, I have a trip planned to Hyderabad, India, and to Bangladesh to begin building relationships in those places. Of course, pro bono students can also reach out to us through our website, and I hope many will continue to do so.
ES: What is the "Give the Gift of Opportunity" campaign you are currently running? Where do the funds go?
LS: Our “Give the Gift of Opportunity” crowdfunding campaign was designed primarily to raise awareness about our pro bono consulting operation. The funds will go towards establishing a fund specifically dedicated to our pro bono clients. Maintaining quality assurance, the cost of taking on a pro bono student for a single application cycle is about $250. And, a portion of the proceeds will also go towards helping to finance the web platform were about to build so that students from all over the world can easily access our consulting services and materials.
In exchange for their contributions, people receive a range of perks — key chains, neon T-shirts, custom designed hats, digital waterproof watches, and leather IPAD cases with our logo screen-printed on the back. For $250 or more, we will also establish a specific scholarship fund in your name.
Image: Ivy, a student from Nairobi who will attend Yale next year with a full scholarship.
ES: In your opinion, what do you think the future of higher education is in America? Are companies like Stonehill the way our country, and the world, will finally create a form of equality within the system?
LS: I hope so! It’s an interesting question. In education, and in other start-up spaces, I definitely see social enterprise business models becoming more popular, which is an encouraging sign, and absolutely — I think — a defining characteristic of the millennial generation. It’s a way, I suppose, of redefining value and worth. And it’s a hopeful sign that companies that choose to adopt such models are receiving both good publicity and venture capital funding.
As for the future, there’s no doubt that the higher education industry will undergo some interesting changes over the course of the next few decades. As jobs and careers face more competition than ever before, obtaining a Bachelor of Arts degree (if not a masters) will increasingly become the baseline expectation.
And as countries like India and China develop more prosperous middle-classes, there is bound to be more competition for spots at higher educational institutions, in particular in the U.S., the U.K., and Canada. It will be a little while, I think, until developing countries produce tertiary education systems that are truly able to compete with the likes of Oxford and Cambridge, Stanford, and Princeton.