This podcast is made possible with support from HP. For more information on HP resources, see please click here.
A transcript of the conversation follows.
"While I don't think the intent is shameful in any way, the process that is being asked is Aid often had to go to an office, apparently before the pandemic, to stigmatize themselves and then justify why a person deserves help. "- –David Helene
Goldie floral style: Welcome to Innovation that counts, on Chronicle of higher education Podcast sponsored by HP. In this particular series, we will share the stories of change makers working to improve equity in higher education. Hi, I'm Goldie Blumenstyk and that voice you just heard is David Helene, the CEO and Founder of Edquity. David, thank you for joining us today.
David Helene: Thank you for having me, Goldie.
Floral style: David, Edquity – why don't you give us the one minute game about what Edquity is doing?
Helene: Yes, absolutely, Goldie. Our work at Edquity focuses on helping institutional partners manage emergency relief across the board. It uses a technology platform to optimize both the speed and equity in delivering emergency aid to students.
Floral style: Currently, the universities are increasingly responsible for the distribution of aid. And are you actually the app for it?
Helene: We are effective. And when we started this work, most colleges and universities were actually handing out really philanthropic or small government grants for emergency aid. Over the past 12 months, we've seen an unprecedented amount of emergency aid poured into the system as a result of the first two Stimulus Acts and an impending third Institutions must manage.
Floral style: It is interesting. We met in the south of Southwest EDU in 2018. You were a guest in my shark tank The Chronicles "Shark Tank: EDU Edition". But if I remember correctly, the company did something completely different back then. What made you decide to make these changes in Edquity?
Helene: When we first met, our work at Edquity was more focused on the front end of the student financial journey. As I pondered this work, I hoped to help students with any financial decision they might make on the path to college, including planning and understanding some of the financial implications of the voting decision. As I continued to do this work and tried to wisely understand some of the structural factors at play, it became increasingly clear to me that for many students this type of voting decision is an illusion.
Many students don't really have the luxury of choice when considering where to go to college and how to fund it. The reality for most students is that most will experience an inevitable financial hardship as a result of our guidelines. We have started to shift our focus from planning and optimizing decision-making at the front end to optimizing students' inevitable access to the safety net once they get there. We also wanted to acknowledge who the student today is. And as you've covered at length, we're no longer necessarily talking about 18-year-olds. We have come to a point where about 50 percent of the students are now adults. In fact, the vast majority of the students we serve are parents themselves.
Floral style: I think when you started you focused very much on this app that the students would download and use themselves. And now you focus much more on working with institutions. Where are you now How many universities do you work with? And how many students do you supervise?
Helene: We're still an app for students, but we work on behalf of colleges and universities as a kind of end-to-end provider. At this point last year we had just started a pilot. In October 2019, we were on a pilot with the Dallas County Community College District for about three months, processing about 1,000 applications and giving out about $ 200,000 in grants. Today we operate in over 30 colleges and universities across the country. We managed over $ 14 million in funding and processed over 40,000 applications. The busiest day was 8,000 applications in a single 24 hour period. And we keep growing fast.
Floral style: Sad irony for you lies in the way the Cares Act and the crisis the country is currently facing has been a bit of a catalyst for your business and what you have done.
Helene: It has. In many ways, it's a kind of reckoning of generations of bad politics. It's not something that the pandemic introduced. It's something the pandemic exposed to those who had some kind of wool over their eyes. Certainly the Cares Act has been a catalyst for our business, as colleges and universities are fundamentally not set up to spend this level of funding in such a way that it takes hours to ponder applications and make decisions, which can lead to implicit biases requiring students, poverty to practice reliving their trauma. However, I hope that the Cares Act will not only catalyze our growth, it will also be a gateway to better, more enlightened and more sustainable policies for years to come.
Floral style: David, you just said something I want to come back to. It is this notion that providing emergency aid can sometimes lead to students creating poverty. What did you mean by that?
Helene: As you ponder the historical paradigm of seeking help in the United States, you need to evaluate the quotation unquote and merit. And when you read the book Automate inequality, by Virginia Eubanks, she does a really phenomenal job of speaking about the historical context there. This, of course, leads to higher education. While I don't think the intent is in any way shameful, asking for help often had to go to an office – obviously before the pandemic – to stigmatize yourself and then justify why a person deserves help. The problem with this is that it can lead to implicit biases in decision-making and often assign morality to the conditions of poverty. You may have a well-meaning practitioner who may be thinking, "Why does the student have an iPhone when asking for emergency help?" Or they can see that they are not disheveled and say, "Well, the student doesn't seem in terrible shape." If they are realistic, they may be dealing with food insecurity or some other latent problem, such as the need for childcare.
If you think about this framework, it will benefit those who know how to ask for help. And we know who that is, as you know. They are not black students, Latinx students, first generation students, or any other minority demographic or underserved student. And it is a framework that gives the narrative advantage over the objective conditions faced by a student. In the context of an application – think Fafsa – students have to jump through these administrative frameworks and produce receipts, for example, to prove how poor they really are. When we say "poverty" we mean it effectively. And we are doing everything we can to avoid this paradigm. We only ask questions about objective conditions such as: Which of the following places have you lived in the past 30 days? Have you skipped a meal in the past 30 days? We try to make sure that the students do not impose their poverty on us, but rather objectively communicate what they are going through. And we use jump logic to make sure students see as few questions as possible so we respect the scarcity of their time.
Floral style: One of the things that I find maybe paradoxical or maybe fascinating about Edquity, maybe a little bit of both, is that you are supposed to help students when they really are most vulnerable. And yet your approach really relies on some automation, an algorithm, and some things that really don't involve direct human empathy. Can you talk a little about this approach?
Helene: Yes, that is absolutely correct. Often times when you think of technology you think of automating inequality and widening racial and equity gaps. In designing our work, we need to pay special attention to how we think not only about designing an algorithm, but also how you interact with students. First and foremost, we incorporate an equity-oriented design into our work. We actually bring students into the co-design process and ensure that students are representative of the students we serve. This is fundamental to designing the user experience, thinking about the language we use to communicate to students, thinking about issues related to trust. But to get to the heart of your question, Goldie, about the algorithm, we are very fortunate to be able to work with it Sara Goldrick-Rabwho is the founding director of the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice.
I would say Sara was certainly the leading advocate and pioneer of research in basic needs and safety, as well as in emergency relief. What we were able to do was we could use their research to inform the design of the algorithm so that we could judge the objective conditions of the students, in a way that by assigning points to categories with basic needs we benefit implicitly from underage students without asking about their race. This is an algorithm that should actually be supposed to fill in equity gaps as it sees students for their experience. It's not about the value or the merit of funds. It really focuses on the basic conditions that you are experiencing. And because these conditions are disproportionately experienced by black students, by Latinx students, by indigenous students, it is really aimed at filling gaps in justice.
Floral style: Can a machine really do this in a more fair and humane way than a person?
Helene: Well, we've seen that in the partners we've served, we serve a disproportionately inferior population of students based on the overarching demographics of the schools we work with. With that in mind, and it's early days, we have a responsibility to continue to do rigorous research to ensure that we are actually living our first worth as anti-racists. It seems to be the case that we are serving black college students, latinx college students, and indigenous students at a higher rate than you would otherwise expect based on demographics.
And the other question about empathy is really interesting. And it's a little bit separate from algorithmic design, but it's just as important. Because part of it is a feeling of trust and belonging. What we're doing is we actually brought in an expert in residence, Chloe McKenzie, who did some really groundbreaking work on financial trauma. And this is a really nuanced study of how intergenerational wealth creation, or social constructs like slavery and wealth transmission, have influenced behaviors and attitudes about wealth and access to wealth. And we're using some of that insight to help spread the word about how we're communicating with students. I really want to make sure that we students see, that we create empathy in our language and that we really build that trust because this is so important to you when we interact with students.
Floral style: With that in mind, let's take a moment for a message from our sponsor.
Mike Belcher: Hi, my name is Mike Belcher. I'm the director of ed-tech innovation at HP. And just wanted to spend a few minutes talking about what we are doing after the immediate help and needs for our students are met. So once we've made sure these students have food and shelter, internet and device access, what does it really take to be ready to learn? And we fear that for a student absent during the pandemic, it can be incredibly difficult to get back to university and hurt their long-term economic potential. How do we maximize the long-term benefits of one-time financing? We're going to see a ton of money for both K-12 and higher education. In the near future, over $ 50 billion for K-12, over $ 20 billion for higher education. And most of it is aimed at Pell-oriented students. Highest Risk Students.
We believe that one of those areas that can be maximized is really thinking about it: what will this student's future be? Where will there be employment growth? How do we help both students and faculty to understand this? And I think we have to move very quickly. These funds will cease to exist by the end of this year. And if we don't and carefully spend them to get these maximum long-term benefits, we think we are all doing ourselves a disservice. Next-generation technologies will affect 75 million jobs in the 2020s. That means that 75 million jobs will most likely be lost. In their place, however, there are 133 million new jobs that place demands on high-tech and a MINT background. And if we don't move our students in that direction and help them think about it, it helps our faculty understand that while it's incredibly important to have a really great background in the liberal arts and to have great communication skills, and so on, if we add a component to STEM too, man, these students have even more value.
If we look at some of this data and last October's World Economic Forum results and their outlook for the future, the top three most in-demand jobs in the world related to artificial intelligence, data science, and data analytics can be found in just about any of the other jobs you see in the top 15 see, has a kind of connection point to data science. Things like virtual reality and situational learning and looking at additive manufacturing and localized high tech manufacturing. We have to somehow rethink what really makes sense to these students. And these jobs have 40 percent higher earning potential and grow two and a half times the rate of jobs without STEM access. If we don't think about it, if we don't devote resources to it, we think that we are doing ourselves and our students a disservice.
The areas we'd like to urge you to reflect on are reflections on what resources we have. Are we adding a STEM component like data science to our liberal arts education, sales and marketing, and communications? Any type of job with incomplete STEM functionality can benefit from some type of STEM connection point and vice versa. The students with these great communication skills and deep problem solving really make a big impact on these STEM and hard STEM focused jobs and opportunities.
And so we would like to urge people to really look into it. If you have not yet attended the World Economic Forum, I urge you to find out and take a look Report on future jobs in 2020. For example, if you haven't seen the HP Laboratory website, it is called HP Megatrends.com, another great place to see: what is the future of technology? Where are these jobs created? What technologies are driving this thrust? In these areas, we would like to urge you to go there. I hope that was helpful. Hope you have received some information that you may need to move forward and please feel free to contact me anytime. I'm happy to be helping our higher education clients and helping people rethink this. Mike Belcher, and that's it [email protected]. We look forward to seeing you.
Floral style: Thanks for that. And hello again, this is Goldie Blumenstyk, back to continue the conversation with David Helene, the CEO and founder of Edquity. You mentioned Sara Goldrick-Rab. Many of our listeners are probably familiar with some of their work. How did that work out as we could say in Yiddish? shidduch – How did that happen? How are you connected
Helene: When I first started a nonprofit called UniFi Scholars, which was my first foray into the educational world, Sara very patiently helped me understand some of the approaches I was thinking about that might have been wrong. Those may not be the words she used, but that was the message I got. And that was in 2013, and I've been fortunate to develop a relationship with Sara over the years by trying to stay close to her research and keep asking questions. As Edquity began to focus more and more on the core topics of her research, Sara became more interested in what Edquity was doing and in the ability to achieve our common goals. Persistence on my part, of course, but Sara’s patience and kindness too.
Floral style: And the relationship that started when she was a bit of a constructive critic?
Helene: And rightly so, to be clear. Again, I think that the approach I took was based on a shared framework as we think about having full financial literacy. If you give someone information, they will only use it. And we know this is at odds with behavioral psychology, but also with how we think about scarcity issues and how we think about the concept of financial trauma. I'm grateful to Sara for helping me open my eyes a little and encouraging me to do my homework.
Floral style: Edquity is a company, and some people might find it strange that there should be a for-profit company that makes money managing emergency aid for students in need. How do you arrange that?
Helene: I tried to make it a nonprofit and couldn't get it off the ground. What has been a very constructive development in recent years is that impact investment vehicles at the seed stage are increasingly being used. And we have seen that social entrepreneurship has become a much more common burden on capitalist corporations. Mark Benioff wrote a very interesting one items in the The New York Timestalk about a new kind of capitalism that is required for today's time. One that recognizes the society we live in and that we need to be better corporate citizens and actually work towards a real social goal. But we certainly have some of the limitations that a for profit company has. We have to be a profitable company. We need to get closer to profitability. And I think we are very lucky that the education sector in particular has a very strong and rich group, investors and foundations with social influence.
We have been very fortunate to work with funders who share our values and who have enabled us to see through our mission for impact without having to compromise. Making decisions that conflict with our overall mission. And I remain optimistic, especially as more and more investors are opposing some outdated practices on how we think about what matters, that only income and only profitability matter. I think a new corporate citizenship model is emerging. And I think this has come at a time that has allowed us to be successful and get this entity going at the seed stage.
Floral style: And all in all, I don't know a lot of companies out there that have some kind of need right now are being recommended Reading list that I just saw that Edquity deleted. What's the point of this reading list?
Helene: I think it's important that people understand what influences our work. Goldie, I think the questions you asked are the right ones, and they're important questions about how you know your algorithmic design isn't going to automate inequality or widen equity gaps. I think it is important that people know what we are about. If I were outside, I honestly would have an inherent distrust of a company like ours, because there are many who stand for doing good to others. In fact, we later find that the unintended consequences are enormous. I think we need to be pretty transparent and open about our building process. I think we have to give people the right to look under the hood and hold us accountable. And honestly, it would be really great if everyone read these books.
Floral style: You mentioned the research earlier. I know you are also doing a project right now evaluating some of your work at Western Governors University. How do you intend to use this research to shape your work?
Helene: We are kind of an unconventional for-profit organization as our endgame is a systemic political movement. And we have the unique opportunity to do basic research. A, because the literature on emergency aid is still developing, but also B, it is simply that we have a first-class researcher on our team. We have built some natural experimentation into the design of the technology that will allow us to continually evaluate the impact of the work we have done. There are two types of components there. For one thing, we can continue to learn. And that's really important for an organization like ours because we have to keep getting better. And we really need to look closely at what is not just the overall impact, but the impact on demographics as well.
Floral style: At one point you talked about using edquity to help students get other types of help as well. Maybe auto repair shop discounts, maybe one night hotel discounts when they get stuck somewhere and have to stay on your campus for a few days. Are you still hoping to build that system? The reason I'm asking is because I've been to campus where I heard the need for it, and it really seems like an important part of what colleges could offer.
Helene: Yes, we absolutely hope to be able to do this work. And we think there is a great opportunity there. Frankly, Goldie, the colleges have done this in a very scratchy way of their own, and they get a lot of credit for not being set up for that. However, we believe that this model can be scaled up and better operated by someone who is fully focused on this work than by colleges redesigning themselves as social service organizations.
We're currently focusing pretty closely on getting federal student funding as quickly and fairly as possible for the next two quarters. But when we look down the street we really have an aspiration to consider how we can offer discounted offers to students in various areas with basic needs, how we can potentially actually pay suppliers directly with the help of emergency aid. However, this leads to a very interesting research question as this is a kind of voucher. We're interested in studying what the difference between coupon programs and direct money transfer is when you talk about research. But in any case, we want to continue to offer students more opportunities to reduce their cost of living.
Floral style: Seems to be a win-win situation, also for the campus communities. It might bring a bit more business to some of the local hotels, local car dealerships. People could benefit from it in other ways.
Helene: Absolutely. And we've seen it work in a few places. We saw Cal State San Jose partner with Airbnb to host thousands of homeless students. We saw Amarillo College work with a local mechanic to help students with transportation problems. It's a win-win-win situation for you as the student is served, the emergency aid goes further because you get a discount on it, procure local businesses and support economic development in the region. It's a really transformative model.
Floral style: What do you currently see as a really high priority for the company?
Helene: Interestingly, we also looked at the subject of rental support. We saw billions of dollars being spent on critical rental support as part of the last two stimulus programs because we are at a time when people are dealing with thousands and thousands of arrears and back payments. Basically, when you think about this issue, it is an application review decision and payment to a landlord or a tenant. We are well placed to support people around money transferring in general. And as an organization we want to keep doing more for students, but we also want to keep getting money fast for people who need money. And we'll think about that further.
Workforce development is a really interesting area. Employers are now investing more in emergency programs as a tool for employee retention and productivity. These are all things that we are very excited about and see as opportunities for the organization and that we will explore further as we move deeper into the year.
Floral style: I know there have been some permissions enhancements for the lately SNAP Program.
Helene: We'd love to help out with SNAP as much as possible. SNAP is a really interesting, nuanced and difficult place where technology can work well because of the specific rules from county to county. There are many organizations that have done pretty well, such as Benefit Data Trust, which has been helping people around SNAP for a while. Benefit Kitchen is a different one. It is really difficult to do the SNAP registration well, but I think we can do our part to make sure the students know that they are, or may be, eligible to do so. Instead of actually helping with the actual application for SNAP, we can work with colleges to refer students to programs they might be able to enroll in and are very excited to see the changes in the rules, which are certainly long overdue, but also Help the colleges get students to enroll.
Floral style: Many people doing justice work come on the basis of their own personal experience. We heard that in our previous podcast with Aimée Eubanks Davis and her work at Braven. I just wonder what motivated you?
Helene: Yeah, I appreciate that question. And I should say, I fundamentally believe that people who are closest to the job and who are experienced are the best at running organizations. In other words, I'm not actually in this case. Sara came up with a #RealCollege to move the true college student experience, including basic needs uncertainty. I joked on a Twitter thread last night that my upbringing was #RealPrivilege. I was very fortunate that I didn't have to worry about my basic needs when I went to college or high school. However, my father was a real student. Und er ging zu CUNY zu einer Zeit, als der Pell Grant die Studiengebühren effektiv abdeckte.
Was ich irgendwie anerkenne, ist, dass meine Erfahrung, meine Fähigkeit, so viele Möglichkeiten zu realisieren, das Produkt einer Politik war, die wirklich aufgeklärt wurde. Und die Tatsache, dass mein Vater, der eine ganz andere Erziehung hatte als ich, in der Lage war, aufs College zu gehen und seinen Abschluss zu machen und tatsächlich auch seinen Master zu machen. Ich bin dankbar für diese Gelegenheit. Und ich denke, dass es unbedingt erforderlich ist, dass wir zu einem politischen Umfeld zurückkehren, in dem jeder diese Gelegenheit hat. Und denken Sie, dass es meine Aufgabe ist, meine Gelegenheit zu nutzen, um diese Möglichkeiten für andere zu schaffen. Das ist wirklich der Punkt, an dem ich motiviert war.
Blumenstyk: Hey David, vielen Dank, dass du heute zu uns gekommen bist. Das war ein wirklich tolles Gespräch.
Helene: Vielen Dank, dass du mich hast, Goldie. War mir ein Vergnügen.
Blumenstyk: Das war Innovation, die zählt, ein Chronik der Hochschulbildung Podcast gesponsert von HP. Weitere Folgen finden Sie auf der Chronik Website oder Ihre Lieblings-Podcasting-App. Ich bin Goldie Blumenstyk.