THE BLOG
02/23/2016 05:47 pm ET Updated Feb 23, 2017

Raise.me -- Too Good to Be True? A Few Questions

Batten the hatches. Here comes Raise.me!

In a matter of days I've gone from knowing nothing about Raise.me to being inundated with information. Raise.me is an organization that purports to provide wonderful scholarship opportunities to high school students, particularly those who are less privileged and less likely to have sophisticated guidance in choosing a college and financing their education.

First awareness came via an uncritical New York Times piece describing Raise.me. After visiting their website I've received emails hoping my school might guide students to the program. Apparently many colleges and universities have signed on. If nothing else, this venture has good PR and marketing capabilities. I use the word "venture" intentionally, as will shortly be clear.

Interested readers can visit the site to find details on the mechanics of the programs, but here is a short overview: Beginning in 9th grade, students register for the program and earn "dollars" for various things, including grades, grade point averages, AP courses, extra-curricular activities and others. Individual colleges assign their own values, so college X may offer $300 for an "A" and university Y offers only $100. The students then accumulate "dollars" that will be granted in scholarships by the college when and if the college admits the student.

Too good to be true? Probably. Misleading? Perhaps.

First, I must register an objection to monetizing student choices. Extrinsic motivators are fleeting and often counterproductive. There are already enough incentives that drive America's students to see learning as an exercise in credential accumulation rather than seeking enlightenment, joy, creation or curiosity. This program is a more sophisticated version of the programs instituted in some urban schools, where small children are treated like laboratory animals, earning small rewards for compliant behavior or good grades.

Raise.me takes the already stressful process of college application and presses it needlessly into years when students should be exploring, taking risks, having fun and not be encumbered by the pressure of getting in to college. (This is also the case with the new college application process, Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, supported by all the Ivy League schools and 80 or so other highly selective colleges. Like Raise.me, the Coalition intrudes needlessly on adolescence by pressing kids into the college game earlier and earlier.)

Raise.me is opaque in ways that invite skepticism. Start with the name -- Raise.me. I know of no other domain name ending in ".me." Is Raise.me profit or not for profit? Did they cleverly avoid .com identification with the .me designation?

The background story suggests someone is in it for the money. According to a Wall Street Journal report, Raise.me is also known as Raise Labs, Inc., a privately held company financed primarily by venture capitalists. Venture capitalism is not inherently evil, but venture capitalism is surely not charitable. Raise.me seems to be a very sophisticated "cause-related" business, seeking to capitalize on student and family anxiety, concerns about higher education costs, and colleges' hopes to capture more student interest at an earlier point in their academic lives.

My skepticism includes the misleading listing of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a primary funder, implying that the scholarships are coming in part from such philanthropic sources. I could not find Raise.me listed as a Gates Foundation grantee. Raise.me won a very small prize in a Gates-sponsored business app contest, completely unrelated to any students' actual scholarships.

Of greater concern is that there is no evidence the accumulated "dollars" actually add to what a student might have received in a total aid package from any university. In business terms, dollars are fungible, and any credit given for Raise.me earnings can be (and seems to be) deducted from other sources the college might have applied. A few reports on College Confidential indicate that my skepticism is warranted. In other words, the program drives students to a college, but probably has no impact on the financial aid package that would otherwise have been awarded. And of course that's almost certainly true! No college would allow its discretionary aid awards to be dictated by a program like Raise.me.

Because I'm the head of a school, I'm even more skeptical that Raise.me uses well-intentioned teachers and counselors to drive business to the site. I do not plan to be complicit in monetizing learning or accelerating college anxiety.

A few questions for Raise.me and the colleges who have signed on: I'd like to know what Raise.me has predicted as returns for its venture capital investors. I'd like to know how Raise.me profits in the process. What's the revenue stream? I'd like to know whether colleges have promised to add Raise.me dollars to every package or whether, as I suspect, it is just taking money from one pocket and placing it into another.

It strikes me as a very clever promotion, earning money for the investors/founders and luring applicants to colleges, using students, teachers, counselors and parents as unwitting collaborators.

If it's such a wonderful program, let's have some transparency in the form of answers to the questions I've posed.