Chicago education tech company targets rural Illinois schools

By Taylor Mullaney

When Ryan Hoch started teaching Algebra II in St. Louis five years ago, he found that his students were vastly unprepared for the futures they wanted.

“When they got to my class their junior year, 90 percent of my students told me that they wanted to go to college,” Hoch said. “They had specific universities in mind, like [Missouri], [Saint Louis University], WashU, different schools that were tough to get into. But then their average ACT was a 15, and the average GPA was a 2.5.”

With that problem in mind, Hoch founded Overgrad, an online college preparation platform, in 2013. Overgrad allows students to track their progress toward college requirements by creating personal profiles.

Students can choose universities to “follow” and compare their own GPA, test scores and courses with specific requirements for universities they hope to attend. Ideally, students then know if they are behind or on track and can effectively tailor their high school years to reach their goals.

Overgrad provides college admission statistics for specific high schools, allowing students to place their academic performance and chances for admission in context of their schools. (Overgrad)

Now in its second year of operation, Overgrad is unique among educational technology companies for its economic model. While most ed tech companies generate revenue by pitching to schools and districts, Overgrad depends on colleges and universities for its profits. In turn, those colleges get a recruitment tool for students whom they might not otherwise reach, and Overgrad remains free for high schools to use.

According to Hoch, that unique funding model allows Overgrad to focus on more rural schools in Illinois, as it is not dependent on funding from large school districts.

“Especially if you’re a start up, it’s hard to go after communities that are that small because it just doesn’t matter that much to your bottom line,” Hoch said. “But if universities want to continue to grow, they’re going to have to be better at getting rural America to go on to four-year universities.”

According to Hoch, Overgrad now has 26,000 student users in Illinois, and nine universities have signed on. Hoch said it is difficult to measure success thus far because freshmen and sophomores started using the platform in fall 2013, but once those students graduate, Overgrad will gain anecdotal and statistical evidence to determine if its model is working. In the meantime, the platform can afford to market to rural areas, and Hoch said those communities bolster Overgrad’s growth.

The nine universities and 114 high schools currently using Overgrad are heavily concentrated in Chicago and rural areas of Illinois. (High schools are shown in red; colleges are shown in blue.) (Taylor Mullaney/Medill)

Rochester High School, located outside Springfield, Illinois, started using Overgrad in the fall of 2013 for nearly 400 students.

Nick Bond, the school’s freshman and sophomore guidance counselor, said Overgrad offered his students a wealth of information—and it was an easy sell to his administration on Overgrad since it’s free for the school. Bond said the program has fostered a dialogue about college prep among students.

“You hear it at lunch times now, and in the hallways,” Bond said. “And you hear freshmen and sophomores talking about [college], which typically would never be talked about until senior year…they’re seeing at least the tie in between what they’re doing in high school and the pay off.”

Bond added that he hopes Overgrad will be implemented at the junior high school for eighth graders in the near future.

Overgrad’s presence also extends to some urban centers. In Chicago, OneGoal, an initiative to help students from low-income communities matriculate through high school and college, has started using Overgrad by integrating it into its college readiness curriculum.

Kylie Vadnais, OneGoal’s senior director of design and innovation, said Overgrad aligns well with OneGoal’s mission.

“Something to help students track their own progress and growth had come up in conversations,” Vadnais said. “If we’re really committed to serving underperforming students, and we also want them to go to good schools, we need to make sure they’re seeing growth…and Overgrad is facilitating that.”

Vadnais said she thinks understanding academic goals and resources has been crucial to Overgrad’s success.

“I think they really understood the position that schools are in, where they can’t put money toward something like this, but that it’s hugely beneficial for students,” Vadnais said.

In the future, Hoch said he hopes Overgrad will expand into career readiness. He said incorporating career standards would enable students to track progress not only toward higher education, but also toward pursuits like joining the military or working for a company.

For now, Hoch continues his work to close the gap between students’ performance and the stark reality of what it will take for them to achieve their college dreams.

“It basically puts the control in kids’ hands, so they’re not going to be stuck with the consequences of the information their school district gives them, consequences of their community, consequences of their university,” Hoch said. “We can show them what they need, and if they’re not getting that level of education, they can hold their institution accountable for it.”

Photo at top: Using Overgrad, students can compare their personal stats to universities’ standards for admission. (Overgrad)