BenchPrep launches “Teach it Forward,” offers free college readiness courses to underprivileged students

By Michael Carney , written on August 20, 2013

From The News Desk

It’s difficult to argue that the education system in this country isn’t broken. But it’s equally difficult to offer a solution to this convoluted issue that appeases the numerous constituencies, from parents to students to faculty to governments. BenchPrep, a two year old Chicago-based education startup, is hoping to circumvent these politics, at least within 25 underperforming districts, by giving its digital study materials away for free. The initiative is dubbed, “Teach it Forward.”

Over the next year, the company will help up to 1,000 struggling students close the college readiness gap. At the same time, the company hopes to gather data on existing educational shortfalls, program effectiveness, and student engagement patterns that can be used to better design both the traditional and digital education systems.

BenchPrep first announced its “Teach it Forward” program last week and has already on-boarded several schools, a process that it expects to complete by mid-September. Under the program, students and faculty will get access to 20 carefully selected courses relevant to college prep, such as high school math, ACT and SAT prep, and 21st century skills (like Microsoft Office) – many of which resource-strapped districts can’t really address under normal circumstances.

“An overwhelming number of high school graduates are not ready for college. In fact, it’s at an all time high with as many as 75 percent of students being unprepared.” says BenchPrep CEO Ashish Rangnekar. “I’ll give you an example. Of the 600,000 college freshmen who enrolled in an introductory calculus course last fall, roughly 200,000 failed. At an average cost of $1,000 for that course, that’s $200 million in lost tuition cost.”

Rangnekar has reason to believe that BenchPrep can help close this gap. The company has seen an average score improvement of 16 percent over a 90-day period for students utilizing its digital study materials. This number increases to 20.5 percent for those students who use the product on both the Web and a mobile device, offset by a 14.7 percent average for Web-only students. For struggling students looking to make the transition to college, this kind of performance boost would be transformative.

It’s easy to take the cynical view that BenchPrep is only offering its materials for free, based on the expectation that these districts and students will become future subscribers. But as Rangnekar points out, the unfortunate reality is that neither group is likely to be able to afford the product, which is priced at $30 per student per month.

Rather, the goal of the Teach it Forward initiative is simply for BenchPrep to help prepare these struggling students for the future while gaining as much insight into the current state of public education to better inform  future instructional design. The company also stands to collect concrete performance data that it can use to advocate for other schools and families to subscribe for the product.

BenchPrep “collects data on millions of learning events each week” from across its existing user base, according to its CEO. This data has helped the company improve its product through offering personalized instruction and curriculum recommendations, as well as using gamification mechanics to incentivize students to perform better. Per Rangnekar, students who follow these customized learning plans typically double the time they spend studying in an average month, and in turn see significant leaps in performance.

BenchPrep has grown its offering at an impressive clip. The company, which is backed by $7.8 million in venture capital, recently crossed the 500,000 lifetime students mark and now offers over 250 courses, figures that have increased from 250,000 and 100 respectively over the last year. The company has also increased its publisher partnerships to more than 30, including big names like McGraw Hill, Wiley, Cengage, and Princeton Review.

In March of this year, the company added several hundred hours of video courses to its existing digital textbook, study guide, and quiz catalog. This was after the company made the move to all-you-can-eat monthly subscriptions in September, meaning students could study for multiple subjects without incurring additional costs.

BenchPrep’s course materials span high school coursework, college admissions, college coursework, graduate admissions, and professional certifications. Given this breadth of content, it’s not surprising that BenchPrep now sees its average student complete more than three courses over their lifetime within its system, while dabbling in several others. These figures have increased significantly since the move to the unlimited subscription model, Rangnekar says.

It’s no easy task to fit digital instruction into the existing frameworks of the mainstream education system and the busy lives of students. It’s even more difficult to do it at a price point that works for the average family and school district. BenchPrep has done more than most education startups to navigate these waters. As a result, the company will get to spend a year inside the classrooms of several public schools, collecting data and interfacing with teachers and administrators.

This level of access is rather unprecedented in the industry and should give the company a significant advantage. But it’s not just BenchPrep that stands to benefit from the program. If all goes according to plan, 1,000 students will graduate next year better prepared for college than would have otherwise been possible. In that scenario, we all win.

[Image Credit: Vancouver Sun]