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A ‘Bot’ That’s Changing the Game for College Selection: Meet the Midwest Software Whiz Whose Program Is Now Helping Students Find Better Fits — and Earn More Degrees

By Richard Whitmire | April 16, 2019

Matt Niksch with robotic students from Rauner College Prep, part of Chicago’s Noble Network of Charter Schools. (Noble Network of Charter Schools)

This is an excerpt from the new Richard Whitmire book The B.A. Breakthrough: How Ending Diploma Disparities Can Change the Face of America. See more excerpts, profiles, commentaries, videos and additional data behind the book at The74Million.org/Breakthrough.

In my 2016 book, The Founders, I tried to track down all the people who had something to do with creating the big charter management organizations that were making a difference in the lives of poor, minority students. Among education reform insiders, the names were mostly familiar: Don Shalvey, the Californian who sparked the sprawling network of charters in that state; KIPP co-founders Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg and CEO Richard Barth; the co-founders of North Star Academy Charter Schools in Newark, Norman Atkins and Jamey Verrilli; Dacia Toll from Achievement First; and the co-founders of IDEA, Tom Torkelson and JoAnn Gama. By the end of the book, the list of major players grew to well over a hundred. Nowhere in The Founders, however, was the name Matt Niksch.

Based on the interviewing for this book, I can now admit that was an omission. In the world of charter school breakthroughs in college success, which I believe is their biggest contribution in the education field, Niksch (pronounced as in New York Knicks) is one of the biggest names out there — and the biggest name you’ve probably never run across.

Niksch occupies a unique position. He’s not a charter school founder, nor an operator. He’s a software guy, and his college-advising software programs, written for his Chicago-based Noble Network, have spread throughout the charter networks and now appear likely to get adopted by traditional school districts. A graduate of Purdue University, Niksch trained as an aerospace and electrical engineer. His father, also a Purdue graduate, was an aeronautical engineer; his mother graduated from Purdue with a degree in mathematics.

During college, he designed microchips for Advanced Micro Devices, a semiconductor company, and then after college worked for Lockheed Martin while picking up a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech. Still searching for the ideal career, he earned his MBA from the University of Chicago and worked as a business consultant at McKinsey & Company.

Not finding anything he was passionate about in his private sector search, Niksch concluded that education was the right path. His mother was a math teacher in the district he had attended, and later Niksch had worked as a substitute teacher during college breaks. “I’d also recently seen some of the research on student growth showing that ‘low-performing’ students were generally the same as ‘high-performing’ students — the difference was the quality of the schooling they received,” said Niksch. “I’d also recently had my first child, and I worried about the moral example I’d be setting for him if I knew there was no fundamental difference between him and the young people growing up a few block east of us in Chicago, and yet tacitly accepting the idea that the outcomes would be different.”

His jump into education happened in 2009 when he landed a Broad Residency in Urban Education, which offers training to potential “game changer” leaders, many of them recruited from outside education. That residency connected Niksch to KIPP and its KIPP to College research, which at that point in time was far ahead of what any school network was doing, charter or traditional. Soon after, the program was renamed KIPP Through College, a change that emphasized the refocus from college acceptance to college completion. At KIPP, Niksch teamed up with Craig Robinson, now with the College Advising Corps, at a unique time in KIPP’s history.

In the beginning years, KIPP’s leaders just assumed that a focus on academic rigor and winning college acceptances for its students would lead to more college degrees. Their philosophy had been to execute the basic “block and tackle” process that everyone believed would work: Fill out the application, complete the federal financial aid form, track down teachers for recommendations, make sure all the standardized testing gets done, ask for fee waivers when possible. But their philosophy that students were automatically ready for college and could enroll and earn a degree without any additional support only led to modest success. “After we went through all those steps, we sort of faced this reality,” said Robinson, “that students who were able to get to college weren’t making it through. And sometimes we’d see that early, in the first year at the end of the first semester.”

As KIPP discovered in 2011, only about a third of its students, while excelling academically in high school, ended up with college degrees. The fact that this was nearly three times the rate for low-income students provided only weak consolation. It was a clear setback, and KIPP debated what to do with the news. The choice: Say nothing publicly while shifting resources to correct the problem or go public so everyone knew about a shortfall that was not unique to KIPP. They chose to go public. “We felt it was important to be honest about our learnings,” said Robinson.

But KIPP had more than full disclosure in mind; it wanted to generate solutions, both for its own students and others. Thus, KIPP Through College shifted into high gear — an effort that spanned all grades and went beyond just academic readiness. The broader goal: infuse students with the grit to tough out college challenges and the joy to make schoolwork less of a grind. But the key components of KTC involved choosing the right college and tracking the students once they left high school.

“We knew that some colleges are just way better than others in helping kids complete, so we started investing resources to systematically solve the challenge we had seen with our alumni not finishing college,” said Niksch. “Working with Craig Robinson, we came up with the idea of trying to do data-driven college counseling.” Generally, high schools recruit college counselors for their empathy skills, the heart and soul of the profession.

In reviewing the data on where their students were most likely to succeed, they discovered that colleges within the same “band”— meaning near-identical colleges with similar acceptance rates — often had radically different graduation rates, as much as a 20-percentage-point difference. For KIPP college counselors, that was revelatory. When counselors first make contact with students about their college plans, beginning in junior year and intensifying in senior year, there’s little they can do to boost the student’s academic profile. Grade point averages are tough to raise in a short period of time, extracurriculars are difficult to add on at the last minute, and standardized test scores might improve somewhat on re-taking, but nothing radical enough to propel a student from, say, a competitive college to a more selective college, where the graduation odds are higher. However, steering a student into a college in the same selectivity band that has a higher graduation rate — that’s huge.

At this point, the KTC process became a software challenge — something Niksch had spent a lifetime preparing for. Niksch developed some early college matching software for KIPP, but KIPP at the time was a collection of small charter management organizations grouped nationally by geographic region with a limited sample size of alumni old enough to be earning degrees. Thus, the research challenge was formidable. “You can’t just write a program that says every kid has to go to a school with a 50 percent graduation rate [at the six-year mark],” Niksch said. “That might work in Illinois, where the graduation rate at the University of Illinois in Chicago is just north of 50 percent, but in Tennessee, outside of Vanderbilt, all these school are below that. National dictates are really tricky.”

Niksch, who was living in Chicago at the time, met a principal from Noble who asked him for advice on college guidance for his founding senior class. Unlike KIPP, which at the time was just launching high schools, Noble had started out with high schools. Immediately, Niksch recognized that Noble possessed the research base he was looking for — thousands of alumni already in college and beyond, all in a single city, Chicago. So in 2012 when Noble opened up a college success advising position, Niksch jumped at it. “I told the KIPP folks, ‘Hey, we’ve been trying to solve this problem for a while, and it’s hard to do here. I’m going to use what they have at Noble to move forward in figuring this out and will share back what we learn.” As documented in The Founders, sharing among the big networks was common, and KIPP and Noble were especially close.

“With the Bot, that same student was targeting better colleges, avoiding the extreme reaches and the under-matching sure bets.”

With Noble’s database, Niksch made quick progress. Within a few months, he had all the information he needed to form this kind of calculation: For instance, if a student has a 3.3 GPA and a 21 on the ACT, his odds of getting into the University of Illinois might be 31 percent. By late August 2012, Niksch rolled out a predictive tool he named College Counseling Bot 2000 — the “Bot” came from thinking of a kid-friendly robot making college admission predictions. Immediately, Noble counselors had a powerful tool that showed the odds a student had of getting admitted into a certain college based on their academic record. Matching those odds against the college success records of a particular college, counselors could guide students into not just the top-ranked college they were likely to get into but also the top-ranked college where they were most likely to win degrees. As promised, Niksch shared the program with KIPP, and the world of data-driven college counseling suddenly became a reality.

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At Noble, the difference was immediate. Before the Bot, a student might apply to eight colleges — let’s say six sure bets and two extreme reaches (translation: basically, no chance of getting in). The result: that student landed at a “sure bet” college. In the parlance of college counseling, that’s called “underreaching.” The problem with underreaching is that lesser-ranked “sure bet” colleges are also less likely to monitor student success, which means students are less likely to earn degrees. A “reach” college, one that’s more challenging to get into, generally has higher graduation rates. With the Bot, that same student was targeting better colleges, avoiding the extreme reaches and the under-matching sure bets. The result: More of their alumni earned degrees.

One unexpected side benefit from the Bot, greatly appreciated by the counselors, was that it informed students when they were overreaching, thus allowing the counselor to avoid that unpleasantness. “You find kids with a 2.5 GPA and 18 on the ACT say to the counselor: ‘I’m going to Harvard because Michelle Obama said I could.’” With the Bot software, it was a goofy robot informing the student that that wasn’t going to happen. For some reason, the tough love proved to be easier to hear from a robot than from a counselor.

A software program that finds the ‘money schools’

The next software program developed by Niksch was a program that tracked the “historical affordability” of colleges. By collecting the financial award letters sent to Noble seniors, Niksch was able to calculate which colleges, from the nearly 200 that Noble seniors applied to, offered workable financial packages. By 2013, he had a tool counselors could use to guide students in that direction — toward the colleges dubbed “money schools.” By combining the affordability program with the predictive admissions program, the counselors got a powerful selection tool to share with students and parents.

Niksch offered a hypothetical example from Illinois. A student attending the University of Illinois is looking at $32,000 for tuition, room, and board. A low- income student from Illinois would pull in about $10,000 in state and federal grants, and the university would provide another $18,000 in institutional grants (essentially a discount). If the student took about $4,000 in federal loans, that would cover the entire cost. Now compare that to the private Knox College in Galesburg, where the same math exercise would conclude that the student would owe an additional $6,000. Worth it to go to a private school? Not really, because the University of Illinois actually has a higher graduation rate than Knox. “That’s a pretty easy choice, because the University of Illinois is a great school, and it’s really affordable.” But compared to another instate university, with a lower graduation rate but similar affordability — let’s say Millikin University in Decatur or Augustana College in Rock Island — then Knox starts looking like the wiser choice.

Suddenly, counselors at Noble, KIPP, and elsewhere have more than heart and soul. They have data that pops up immediately on the computer screen. Now they have head, heart, and soul.


 

“I don’t want people whose job it is to be good at helping and supporting kids to be super-focused on being good at Excel.”

— Matt Niksch, chief college officer Noble Network of Charter Schools


The software program, now called the Decision Report, also got shared with KIPP and others. The original Bot software, adapted to their particular needs, is used by nearly all the top charter networks. Also in Niksch’s toolkit: the Weekly Report (within Noble, called the SSV, for Single Student View). Students come up with their initial list of favored colleges, but that list changes quickly, which led Niksch to write software that tracks the changing list, giving updates on a student’s odds of getting into newly listed colleges, and the affordability of those places. This new addition to the arsenal is far more powerful than the original Bot. “It almost ensures that kids are going to have great choices come spring,” Niksch said. This, also, is getting shared with other networks.

‘It’s really about all the students, not just the students you serve’

There’s more to Niksch’s Skunk Works–like list of disruptive innovations: the Alumni Tool, which has roots in his time spent at KIPP. When thinking about how to support alumni in college, Niksch discovered that high school counselors charged with tracking those students were drowning in data and asking for Excel spreadsheet training. “I thought that was ridiculous. I don’t want people whose job it is to be good at helping and supporting kids to be super-focused on being good at Excel.” So back in 2009 the KIPP team hired consultants to modify business software from Salesforce, experts in what’s know as customer relationship management, to produce an alumni tracking system.

Now at Noble, Niksch was able to recreate a “quick and dirty” copy of what he had developed at KIPP, improve and update it, and apply it to Noble alumni. The task was made less difficult because its students all came from the Chicago area and most went to a relatively small group of colleges and universities. Today, about 20 CMOs all over the country use the Noble alumni database tool, which grew out of the KIPP program, to track about 100,000 of their students. Once a new network wants to adopt the software, Niksch said, it takes only a two-hour conference call for him to help them set it up.

Niksch, a boyish, self-effacing Midwesterner, who looks far younger than 42, has this reaction to the impact he’s having: “I mean, it’s kind of neat.” As for measuring the results of his program, he conservatively puts the bump in college graduation rates at somewhere between 5 and 10 percent. At Noble, which has an alumni population of more than 10,000 students, that’s between 500 and 1,000 students getting bachelor’s degrees who might otherwise not have just because, as Niksch puts it, “We made a goofy bot.”

It’s important to keep in mind that his software programs are getting deployed across the country by charter networks, and they appear likely to break through in traditional school districts, which are just acknowledging that they own, at least partly, the college fate of their alumni. It doesn’t pay as well as designing chips or aerospace systems, but Niksch seems OK with that.

The key to having real impact with the software programs was keeping them non-proprietary. Although it seems like a given now that these programs are meant to be shared, it didn’t have to be that way. What Niksch invented has real value and, if kept proprietary, could have been, to use the Silicon Valley lingo, monetized. That was never even considered, said Robinson, Niksch’s former colleague at KIPP. “The folks who are committed to this work learn pretty quickly that if you want to be transformative at scale, you’ve got to open your doors. You have to open source. And if you’re sharing, you are also receiving learning. It’s part of a community practice. It’s really about all the students, not just the students you serve.”

Inside the school with the country’s priciest alumni tracking system

Clearly, KIPP has the most evolved — and expensive — tracking system in the country. And within the KIPP network, its NYC College Prep high school in the Bronx probably fields the most sophisticated counseling/ tracking operation.

In 2017, to report The Alumni series, I visited the school to get a snapshot of a typical day there. In all my charter school visits, I’d never seen anything like it. At this high school on the day I was there, a dozen counselors were working as a team on the task of college completion — some handling college advising, others tracking alumni through college. This doesn’t come cheap: Just on the tracking operation alone, KIPP was spending $2,000 per student per year. In the coming years, as its alumni population grows, the plan is to trim that back to $1,600 per student. KIPP, unlike other networks, tracks all its middle school graduates, regardless of whether they went to a KIPP high school or not, which greatly increases the number of students it follows and undoubtedly reduces its overall college success rate. Their leaders do it because they believe it’s the right thing to do.

At KIPP’s NYC College Prep High School, 46 percent of the graduates earn bachelor’s degrees, about four times the rate of similar students. (KIPP)

During my visit, I sat down with Tessa Kratz, director of college and career counseling, who laid out a student-by-student college matching strategy that was as intricate as anything I came across during my years reporting on the Pentagon. Her campaign starts in the student’s junior year when parents coming to report card night are asked to bring their tax forms, which get scanned into the system — the first of many building blocks needed to find the right-match college with the right-match financial aid package.

I also sat in on a college prep class for juniors, where two visiting KIPP alumni described their college experiences. There was no sugar coating here. One of the alums described a searing experience of isolation and academic failure that led to her transferring to another college and downsizing her career expectations. This is what can happen when things go wrong, said the alum. The other alum advised the students against tuning out the incessant college advice they got. That’s advice you may desperately need when you land on a college campus, she told the juniors. “KIPP is just letting you know what the real world is like.”

I also sat in on a college prep class for seniors run by the KIPP Through College team, the counselors the students will stay in touch with once they arrive on campus. More tough-love talk here about staying out of trouble by avoiding peer pressure, with the counselors warning that, unlike students from wealthy families, they don’t have the same leeway to mess up and recover. “We’ve got your back, but we’re not heroes. If you get kicked out, it’s going to be hard to get you back in,” the counselor told them, listing all the scholarships and grants that keep them afloat. “We don’t have the luxury of just moving you to another college.”

The entire package, while expensive, seems to be working: 46 percent of the graduates from this high school are earning bachelor’s degrees, about four times the rate of students from similar backgrounds.

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Although the college advising tactics seen at KIPP are common at all the top charter networks, the college tracking teams vary widely. Few choose (or are able) to invest the money that KIPP does. The most interesting contrast is found with Uncommon Schools, where Newark’s North Star Academy has long been regarded as an exemplary charter. But several years ago, the North Star team looked at the rising numbers of alumni and the cost of following them through college, and decided to invest more of its resources in strengthening the K-12 education.

“A lot of the talk about college persistence is about, How do we build the superhuman support to get them to succeed?” Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, who oversees K-12 curriculum for Uncommon, told me during a visit to North Star. “But lost in that narrative is the question, Where are we failing in the preparation we’re giving them prior to entering college? Our college persistence numbers are climbing, but I think it’s less about what we’re doing to support them in college than it is about what we’re doing in the K-12 arena.”

To improve college success, Uncommon focused on how subjects are taught, raising SAT scores, increasing GPAs, and strengthening the rigor of science classes. There is a college tracking team at North Star, but it is relatively modest: Two counselors are assigned to that task. That’s intentional. “If you have $1 million to spend on boosting college graduation rates, would you spend it on expanding in-college supports or boosting the quality of grades 5-12?” Bambrick asked. For him, the answer is to spend it on grades 5-12.

This is an excerpt from the new Richard Whitmire book The B.A. Breakthrough: How Ending Diploma Disparities Can Change the Face of America. See more excerpts, profiles, commentaries, videos and additional data behind the book at The74Million.org/Breakthrough.

Disclosure: The Walton Family Foundation funded a writing fellowship that helped produce The B.A. Breakthrough and provides financial support to The 74. The 74’s CEO, Stephen Cockrell, served as director of external impact for the KIPP Foundation from 2015 to 2019. He played no part in the reporting or editing of this story.

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