College can prove to be a challenging experience under the best of circumstances, and for those struggling with the academic work amid all the other pressures present at that time in your life, it can become overwhelming all too quickly, especially without guidance and assistance.
I had the chance to speak to Alex Leader, CEO of Aviso Retention, a Columbus, Ohio-based firm working on the problem of student engagement and retention by using AI to identify those in need of help. It’s a terrific ambition, and one that Alex clearly feels passionately about from his own background.
Mary Juetten: When did you start?
Alex Leader: Aviso didn’t start when the company was created in 2010. It started much earlier with my personal experience. I grew up north of Columbus, Ohio, in a very rural community. I wanted to be an ophthalmologist. In high school, I memorized what was needed, scored well on tests and was accepted into a great, four-year Ohio university to focus on pre-med. What I realized quickly was that I was in over my head; I didn’t know how to learn, and I also didn’t know where to turn for help. I switched majors to computer science and learned that an entire support system did exist: upper-class mentors, advisers, and institution-offered services. The next three years I excelled. I learned how to learn with guidance along the way, including a sounding board of professors and mentors that led to a very successful outcome. I remember thinking this experience couldn’t have been unique to me. Following graduation, I started my career as a developer who wrote code, but the seed was planted from this prior experience.
Years later I had the opportunity to build Ohio’s e-transcript exchange system, named the Articulation and Transfer Clearinghouse (ATC), with the Ohio Board of Regents, which coordinates and funds the two- and four-year colleges in Ohio. This work unlocked a passion – applying the technical skills I had to help students receive credit when transferring from one institution to another. I was helping them get the credit they deserved, shortening their time to graduation and lowering their costs. I felt value and purpose in these efforts.
Marion Technical College was an institution that I assisted to get connected with the ATC. In 2010, we approached each other. Could we build software to identify students who weren’t following the curriculum of their declared program of study and send their advisers an email so that a conversation could take place? That’s when Aviso was born. And it was born no more than 20 miles from where I grew up, servicing graduates of the high school that I attended.
Juetten: What problem are you solving?
Leader: Whether during COVID or pre/post-COVID, the fact of the matter is that student success professionals (advisers, success coaches and others) are having to choose where to spend their time each and every day. The pandemic opened our eyes even wider to the equity gaps that exist in today’s society, with enrollment dips affecting Black and Hispanic populations the most.
Aviso identifies opportunities for engagement that connect students with support at the institution that can make a difference. We predict the likelihood of a student to earn a passing grade in a class, to return next term, and to earn a credential. We give institutional staff and students the tools they need to engage either personally with each other or at a higher level with the various support options that exist within the institution. We excel at finding those moments of engagement, those inflection points where a student is on the fence, and ensuring they have access to their support team and the resources at the institution and community that can help. All of this leads to student success professionals having more time to do what they do best. They spend their time engaging students rather than sifting through mounds of data to make sense of it all.
Juetten: Who are your customers and how do you find them?
Leader: Our customers are two- and four-year colleges across the United States. More specifically, we see great fit and opportunity with two-year community and technical colleges. These institutions have been traditionally underserved. They don’t have the larger budgets that their four-year counterparts operate with, and staff have many responsibilities. Yet two-year institutions enroll thirty-five percent of all college enrollment in the United States.
As for customer acquisition strategies, the best strategy is to do great work and let results speak for themselves. The majority of our conversations start because of a warm introduction by one of our partner institutions to another.
Juetten: Who is on your team?
Leader: Aviso is made up of wonderful people with very diverse skill sets, all focused on creating better outcomes for the students and institutions we serve. We are engineers building a product, data scientists finding innovative ways to predict behavior, implementation consultants helping with best practice approaches for engagement, and long term partners to drive adoption. The common thread among everyone at Aviso is the desire to change the status quo, ensuring equity and helping our partners create meaningful change at their institutions.
Juetten: Did you raise money?
Leader: No. And this is by design. I believed from the beginning that aligning our success to our partner institution’s success was paramount. While this did create challenges in the early days, it has provided significant benefits. What we want our partners to understand is that when decisions are made, they are made in alignment with them.
Juetten: How do you measure success and what is your favorite success story?
Leader: I personally measure success by the impact that a person can have on others. My favorite success stories are those from our partner institutions, whether that be through research results, outcomes for specific population types or more generally how advisers, success coaches and others are supporting their students through challenging situations.
One such research-based example is the First in the World effort among 10 of our institutional partners, using our technology as the support software and DVP-PRAXIS as the evaluator. This study proved that success coaches assigned to students attending two-year community and technical colleges led to positive student outcomes. Students who had the same success coach for the duration of the study showed a 12% increase in credential completion. There were also significant equity implications. Black students assigned a success coach were 8% more likely to remain enrolled for a year and 18% more likely to remain enrolled for two academic years. These results have led to an even more focused research effort across eleven institutions in North Carolina, the Minority Male Success Initiative. That effort is specifically focused on the minority male population to learn whether the success experienced in the First in the World effort can be replicated at greater scale for historically underrepresented populations.
Again, the above are not my successes but the successes of the great work being done across the nation in the area of student success. It is very rewarding for our team to help enable others to do this work at scale and to help push the student success industry forward. We enjoy sharing these efforts with others in the hope they can employ them at other colleges to create successful outcomes, regardless of whether they use our platform.
Juetten: Any tips to add for early-stage founders or CEOs in growth mode?
Leader: I know it is cliche, but align your work with your purpose and mission. There will be great days and others that are more challenging. If you and the team are aligned in this manner, there is great satisfaction from the work that is being done. In fact, it doesn’t feel like work at all.
Juetten: What’s the long-term vision for your company?
Leader: The mixture of technology and engagement is so incredibly exciting! Our vision is to anticipate the needs of a student and provide awareness and opportunities as a student begins to realize that they need them. Coming full circle with my own personal story, an example would be anticipating a student could be more successful when paired with a mentor in a specific subject area and making that opportunity known and guiding the student through the process. The challenge is that it has to feel natural and be scalable and affordable for the institution. When we (collectively as higher education) accomplish this, every student will receive the support they need, and institutions will offer exactly the right mix of support services to create positive outcomes. In short, equity will exist for all.
Thank you to Alex for highlighting such an important issue. Many of us may check out on those questions the moment we’re handed our degree, but for the sake of this and future generations of students, it’s good to have a spotlight on these challenges. Also, I cannot agree more about having a passion for your work; it’s all about purpose. #onwards.