Empowering Students and their “BigFuture”

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

This week I was pleased to take in The College Board’s unveiling of BigFuture at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. BigFuture is a new, sophisticated, but-surprisingly user-friendly web interface developed by the Board in partnership with the Education Conservancy.

There have been many career information systems and college search engines puttering around. Even the US Department of Education houses several excellent web tools, including  College Navigator and the College Affordability and Transparency Center, and EdTrust has College Results Online. But BigFuture is a game changer by putting even more power in the hands of those who truly matter—students.

This isn’t meant to serve as an advertisement for BigFuture, although, as a former employee of The College Board, I must say I am somewhat smitten with this new release. It came to me while listening to some of the students speaking at the press conference why this is so important. We (collectively) talk often and loudly about the need for change from states, provinces, institutions, and other education stakeholders. We urge more funding, more financial aid, and even more accountability for higher education. We talk about school reform to level the playing field for all students, especially those who are from low-income and/or first generation backgrounds.

But when we talk about these things, we are always pointing to government agencies to fix them.

BigFuture puts the power of knowledge and choice in the hands of students. From here, they can make prudent choices about their future, including what they want in life, what steps they need to take to get there, where to apply for college, and when and where they enroll. If the Pell Grant gives students a financial voucher to go almost anywhere they want, BigFuture gives them the knowledge and guidance to help get there.

One of the biggest hurdles facing low-income and first-gen students in getting to college is knowledge. Arguably, it isn’t money. Money is undoubtedly a barrier, but not as much because of the looming cost of a higher education, but because it serves as a mental barrier to whether students “think” they can even go to college. Why would a student be motivated to graduate from high school, or take AP courses, if they don’t think they can go to college? BigFuture provides students with critical information about college finance  and the college experience that supplies them with critical “college knowledge” so they can plan their high school years with an end goal.

BigFuture lets students listen to other students, search and learn about colleges and programs, and perhaps most importantly, start making a plan to get there. The site allows students to create an online profile which they can update and which also updates students on important timeline issues, such as what courses they will need or when PSAT, SAT, AP, and even ACT tests are scheduled. BigFuture is, essentially, a digital counselor for students. As made clear during the press conference by The College Board’s Pat Martin, BigFuture isn’t there to replace counseling. But, as she noted, with counselors having ratios of 1:500 students in some high schools in the country, more help is desperately needed.

The challenge of BigFuture and similar digital efforts is, of course, getting students to use it. I have argued for quite some time that as we talk more and more about college readiness standards, we don’t give students the tools to make prudent decisions about their future. If we start incorporating BigFuture and other counselor-driven information into core curriculum, we can help all students gain the knowledge and put that knowledge to use for their future.

As K-12 and higher education continues to slowly evolve into this new global competition for talent, perhaps it will take students to increase the speed of change at the bureaucratic and governmental levels. Politicians won’t make it happen. Students can. And more power in their hands is a good first step.

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