How Playlists Help College Hopefuls, Overwhelmed Advisers

Mytonomy, a D.C.-area video startup, aims to connect students with college and career advice from near-peers and other role models

Pretty much every teenager — and her parents — needs help with the college admissions process. Which schools would be a reach, and which would be a safe bet? Should she study before taking the SAT, and if so, how much? What financial aid might she be eligible for? What kind of essay topic would move her to the top of admissions pile?

Students often answer these questions with the help of online information, from The Princeton Review's college recruiter quiz to College Confidential's student message boards. But teens who are the first in their families to apply to college often don't even know what questions to ask, says Gerry Oxx, a veteran high school counselor at Hector Godinez Fundamental High School in Santa Ana, Calif. At Godinez, 97 percent of students are Latino, 84 percent are low-income, and most parents have a high school education or less. Although Oxx coaches small groups of students through the college process each year, with a caseload of 500, he's spread thin.

Oxx was thrilled to learn of Mytonomy, a Chevy Chase, Md.-based startup that's building something like YouTube for the high school-to-college transition. The company — which takes its name from the word "autonomy" — has assembled an online library of more than 2,800 advice videos and written content created by high school counselors, their star pupils and other role models. There's an emphasis on underserved minority voices, and many videos are in Spanish.

High-achieving low-income students are underrepresented in the nation's most selective colleges. That may be partly because they lack access to relevant college application information, according to research led by Stanford economics professer Caroline Hoxby. Georgetown's Anthony Carnevale, director of its Center on Education and the Workforce, found that since 1995 more than 30 percent of African-American and Latino students with a high school grade point average higher than 3.5 head to community colleges, compared to 22 percent of white students with the same grades. In 2011, 55 percent of Godinez graduates went on to two-year schools, and 20 percent went on to four-year schools.

Oxx has found that first-generation college students are often well served by smaller, liberal arts schools, which encourage students to explore a variety of subjects. His students might not know anyone who has attended such a school, but through Mytonomy, they can watch Godinez alum Rodolfo Santana explain why he chose to major in electrical engineering live from his Union College dorm room in Schenectady, N.Y. "Currently, we're doing circuits," Santana says in one video, holding up a chip he's using in his programming class. In another video, he describes what it's like to go college on the East Coast.

Vinay Bhargava, a former Google employee, co-founded Mytonomy in 2011 along with his childhood friend Sean Burke, a counselor at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a magnet school in northern Virginia. Burke's suburban students faced a different information gap: They were terrified that their lives would be over if they didn't get into their dream school, and they needed more information about STEM college majors.

Over time, Mytonomy users have contributed videos like Santana addressing all sorts of questions, from how to prepare for a job interview to how to deal with parental pressure. Videos addressing the same question can get repetitive, but that doesn't bother Bhargava. "We want to have as many different voices answering the same question," he says. "The thing about college access is that it's the same set of questions every year. It's new people and new circumstances, but the process is the same."

The content can be experienced in two ways. Anyone can register to watch Mytonomy's videos on the site or on the recently launched iPhone app (the Android version is in process). By registering, viewers have the opportunity to contribute their own videos and follow topics that interest them, as you would follow a person on Twitter. Before they're posted, videos are vetted by Mytonomy's staff.

Schools can purchase Mytonomy PLUS, which allows counselors to create playlists for students to watch and track who has completed them. The startup has entered pilot relationships with Oxx's school, Burke's school and Arlington County Public Schools, and customer relationships with KIPP DC, a public charter school; The Lab School of Washington, a private school for students with learning disabilities; and Yongsan International School of Seoul, a private school in South Korea. Eventually, Mytonomy will make money by selling its premium product to high schools, which pay about $2 to $3 per student per year. For now, Mytonomy relies on investments from groups like venture philanthropy firms.

Mytonomy's 2- to 5-minute videos are amateur affairs, shot by smartphone or computer camcorder. Their quality varies. Some speakers speak clearly and gaze straight into the camera, others mumble and fidget. Some videographers have added extra elements, like pop-up text. One video, in which a Yale student talks about dining hall food, seems to have been shot in a supply closet — in defiance of all 13 of Yale College's absurdly photogenic dining halls.

The most compelling videos have a confessional quality. "Because my pronunciation is I guess, pretty good, people don't' really understand that I'm completely from a different country. A lot of people think I was born here," Haruka Nakagawa, a Japanese student at George Washington University, says when asked to describe a challenge she's faced. Nakagawa goes on to describe how awkward it is when she has to ask American friends to explain a word to her, and her fear of public speaking.

Strictly informational videos can be a snooze — which is a shame, because they convey important preparation information. "That's where the adults come in," Oxx says. Using Mytonomy PLUS, he can direct students in his college prep sessions to the videos relevant to that week's discussion, or point individuals to videos that reflect their college aspirations.

Not all high school counselors Mytonomy approaches are excited about the concept. The nationwide student-counselor ratio at public schools is 470 to 1, college preparation often loses out to academic guidance and mental health as a priority, and many overburdened counselors doubt they have time to learn to use a new tool.

Mytonomy wants high school counselors to see the videos as a way to provide students and families with information 24 hours a day. But the truth is that the tool is most effective when moderated by a professional like Oxx, who knows that the college application process isn't just about meeting deadlines. It's about helping teenagers make adult decisions about their future.