Guest blog by Denise Wydra, Consultant at Branch Ideas 

What’s the Achilles’ heel of many edtech entrepreneurs? They’re brilliant and successful.

It’s not their fault, of course. Through a combination of natural ability, hard work, and outstanding support, they’ve come to excel in their chosen areas. But this means they may be unaware of what it’s like to be an average college student in the U.S.—and even less knowledgeable about the students who stand to gain the most from educational technology.

For example, most edtech entrepreneurs were full-time students at 4-year residential schools. They have an indelible notion of “college” that includes leafy campuses, late-night bull sessions in dormitories, vying for the attention of prestigious professors, and long hours studying in the library.

Yet this experience is anything but typical. Across the U.S., almost half of all undergraduates (46%) attend 2-year schools or for-profit institutions—none of which have dormitories. A quarter of all students live with their parents. And 38% attend school part-time.  Only 14% of students live on campus.

In other words, most students don’t start college by packing up the car and meeting their roommates. More like, figuring out a commuting strategy to a set of concrete buildings surrounded by asphalt parking lots. Or making sure they have the right computer plug-ins to access online courses.

So, that’s a huge chunk of the college population that’s having a profoundly different experience, even though it’s all called “college.”

Why does this matter? It’s human nature to assume that other people’s values, preferences, and motivations are like our own. So when brilliant entrepreneurs work on products for college students, very often the reasoning is “I would use this. My friends in college would use this. Why wouldn’t everyone use this?” 

But they and their friends aren’t like everyone.

Understanding the end user is a crucial element in designing successful solutions. Yet over the past twenty years, I’ve seen dozens of people in edtech falling into this same mental trap, assuming that college students are pretty much all the same—and pretty much as they were, including being male (wrong), science majors (wrong), and academically competitive (wrong). This in turn affects large and small decisions about everything from interface design to product positioning.

The U.S. higher ed. landscape is huge and varied. It’s difficult for anyone to experience that variety first-hand. But entrepreneurs are certainly at a disadvantage if they don’t try to get a sense of the full picture. Without that perspective, too many make avoidable mistakes—and may be even be focused on solving the wrong problem.

Fortunately, there are time-tested methods for developing a better understanding of the people you are trying to reach. A useful first step is to check assumptions at the door and take a close look at what you do and don’t know. To help with that, here are some more facts about today’s college students:

  • Many are older, work at outside jobs, and have children.  Across all schools, 31% of undergraduates are 25 years old or older. At public 2-year schools, this proportion is 38%; at for-profit schools, 68%. Nearly 4 in 10 students attends part-time, and even the full-time students have a heavy outside workload: a third of students aged 16-24 work 20 or more hours per week. And at for-profit schools, the median number of children is 1. Rather than callow high school graduates on educational auto-pilot, picture returning veterans and working parents determined to improve their lives.
  • They aren’t academically prepared for college. 40% of all college students take at least one remedial course, with the most common being math. At 2-year schools, that proportion is a whopping 68% of students. These courses eat up time and money without contributing any college credits; many of these students become discouraged and drop out.
  • Their primary motivation isn’t “learning.”  For most students, the goal is a certificate or degree that will give them an edge in a competitive job market. The opportunity to learn more, to inquire more deeply, or even to earn a better grade is not much of a motivation. Students don’t do anything that isn’t assigned, and even then, they make strategic choices about whether the credit really justifies the effort.
  • They don’t major in STEM disciplines. More bachelor’s degrees are awarded in education than in engineering. The single largest major is business, which accounted for 20% of all bachelor’s degrees in 2013. Physical sciences, mathematics and statistics, engineering, computer science, and biology combined accounted for only 16%.
  • They interact less with full-time faculty and more with freeway-flying adjuncts.  At 2-year schools, adjuncts teach 58% of all courses, and even at 4-year schools, they handle the many sections of big intro courses like writing or psychology. Unlike the stereotypical “college professor,” adjuncts have little job security, low wages, and scant control over what they teach. They make ends meet by teaching at several institutions at once, which means they have little extra time or attention to spare for their students. Although they are dedicated educators, there’s no chance to chit chat in book-lined offices—in part because adjuncts rarely have offices.

These statistics just scratch the surface, but they should help shake loose the natural assumption that edtech entrepreneurs were “typical students” in just about any way. Building up a clear, nuanced picture of the student audience needs to be an ongoing priority for anyone designing educational solutions. Fortunately, it can be pretty fun—why not visit your local community college today?


denise-wydra-headshotDenise Wydra is currently at Branch Ideas, working with edtech companies on product design, messaging, and strategy. She has previously served as President of Bedford/St. Martin’s, a respected and successful college publisher; VP for Humanities at Macmillan Learning, a global education company; and COO of Cognii, Inc., a leading provider of AI-based solutions for education and training. Contact her here.