How does a six-person startup with no client base and zero experience in higher education beat out a lauded firm with 325 employees that’s worked with 1 million students?
by Chris Horne
UA received only two responses to its RFP for student success coaching: TrustNavigator and InsideTrack, two very different companies at very different stages.
InsideTrack claims it has worked with 1 million students using “coaching methodology” based on “hundreds of independently validated studies…”
TrustNavigator admits in their proposal to having no clients and having concerns about its coaches burning out under the proposed workload.
InsideTrack, a for-profit company, uses a mobile coaching app and employs more than 300 student success coaches around the country, some of whom would have relocated to Akron.
TrustNavigator is a nonprofit organization but is connected by its name and a common founder with two for-profit companies, TrustNavigator Student Services LLC and TrustNavigator Management Services LLC.
Cost appears to be the key difference between the two but there are serious questions whether TrustNavigator can perform the work, including the company’s own concerns about hiring enough coaches in time for the Fall 2015 semester.
As the saying goes, every penny counts, but in a budget nearing $480 million, you might be surprised how little attention a figure like $843,000 warrants. What made the University of Akron’s contract with TrustNavigator stand-out—though it has not yet been completed, nor signed—is that it was approved by the Board of Trustees, in front of a crowd of protesters, on the same day they voted to abolish 213 positions and put 161 employees out of work. Otherwise, maybe no one notices. Maybe there’s no fuss.
But there was a fuss and it moved from the meeting to social media where critics questioned the expense and mocked screenshots of the company’s website and links to their proposed curriculum, which displayed a mix of grammatical errors, filler text that hadn’t been replaced and writing reminiscent of a Nigerian scam email. A number of students, faculty, staff and alumni found this troubling considering the company would be tasked with helping freshmen succeed academically.
More questions followed, mostly some form of “Who are these people?” A write-up by Freshwater Cleveland characterized the company, in its founder’s words, as “a ‘pay-to-play’ program” designed to alleviate grads of their “tons of debt” and “encourage alumni to be more involved with their alma maters,” though the article never explains how. There are no clients or testimonials on the company’s website and only three employees listed. Each is described as an “ambassador”: Tom Roulston, III, the “Chief Ambassador” and founder; University of Akron alum Rob Reho, the “Chief Operating Ambassador;” and “Chief Envoy Ambassador” Anna Zeller, a 2015 UA grad. (Instead of success coaches, TrustNavigator is opting to call them envoys.) As WAKR’s Amani Abraham pointed out, Grace Roulston was originally listed as the company’s third employee, their communications person. In the company’s proposal, three more employees are included in the org chart: a human resources director, an IT director and a curriculum director.
The company seems like a good fit for the university, which in the request for proposals (RFP) for success coaches, touted its $69 million in research spending and described itself as “a strong public university focused on innovation, entrepreneurship, and investment in community and economic growth.”
However, when the review committee tallied the final scores, InsideTrack, the venerated company with a significant history of business, fell far below of TrustNavigator’s score. Out of a possible 1200 points, TrustNavigator scored 680. InsideTrack had just 360.
“Initial projections for the fall 2015 class are positive,” a Division of Student Services report to the Board of Trustees on June 10 noted. “As of April 15, 2015, for all admit types, the applicant pool is up 17 percent, the admit pool is up 12 percent, and the confirmed pool is up 14 percent.” The university expects about 4,000 incoming freshmen for the fall 2015 semester, which begins August 31.
Those freshmen are essentially the target audience for the success coach RFP because the goal for the university—and presumably all colleges and universities—is to keep students on campus through graduation. That seems obvious but most drop-outs happen after a student’s first year in college. Research suggests coaching can successfully keep them enrolled.
“And not only does coaching improve the likelihood students will remain in college, but expenditures on coaching are much smaller than the costs of other methods to encourage persistence in college,” Stanford professor Dr. Eric Bettinger said.
Then again, he was discussing his research on InsideTrack specifically.
Whether outsourcing success coaches was developed to stand alone or as part of a plan to offset the deep budget cuts required by a projected $60 million shortfall, the fact is the University of Akron will need help when students show up on campus in the fall. Of the 213 abolished positions, a full quarter came from one place: the Division of Student Success. There, 53 positions were eliminated, including the Vice President and Assistant Vice President of Student Success who were among the 10 positions cut in the Student Services Center and five from the Center for Academic Advising and Student Success.
On paper, the cuts save the university $3.47M on employee salaries and benefits but it leaves a number of services more vulnerable, from admissions and off-campus services to residence life and student life.
Though the scoring matrix utilizes 15 criteria, the RFP narrative summarizes the university’s key interests in three sentences: “The University is seeking proposals from qualified contractors/vendors to provide success coaches. Such proposals will design and maintain a success coaching program that enhances student success and is closely integrated with academic advising. This requires an enthusiastic, creative, and professional focus and coordination that offers a high quality, innovative and integrated program for students that optimizes their satisfaction that then helps to ensure their persistence, and graduation.”
The RFP uses the word “innovative” three times on the same page and then states that the university wants assurances its pick can deliver on its promises, too.
“It will be important for companies to demonstrate their success delivering such services in higher education settings if available. If not available, the company should demonstrate how it is predicted that such services will produce the desirable outcomes.”
InsideTrack may have been hamstrung by being the out-of-towner whereas TrustNavigator’s six-person team is based up the road in Cleveland. While InsideTrack boasts more than 300 current success coaches in the field, they made no promises to hire local candidates, saying the subject would “require additional discussion.” TrustNavigator noted it already had hired “multiple Akron alumni as well as northern Ohio residents.” (It appears two UA graduates are on staff.) The company further pledged to hire, at $28,000 a year each, “predominantly Akron Alumni” to fill their success coach positions. Clearly, they had the hometown edge.
It could be that the review committee may have taken exception to InsideTrack’s unwillingness to submit its audited financials or jeopardize relationships with its past and current clients by withholding references and contact information until it reached the next stage. But that would mean the committee had to forgive TrustNavigator for not having a financial past to audit or having clients to contact.
Along with Roulston’s and Reho’s decades of business experience, the TrustNavigator proposal does list three references, as requested, including former Ohio State president Gordon Gee, whose new school, West Virginia University, is addressed in an unsigned example contract for “consulting, project management and strategic planning services (‘LifeLaunch Services’) LifeLaunch intends to provide to WVU and its students…within a fun-spirited campus society.” But the University of Akron did not provide notes about whether Gee was contacted.
So that leaves the money. Based on the costs alone, you might conclude that the committee made the right recommendation. At $843,000, TrustNavigator would cost about half the amount of the $1.66 million InsideTrack wanted for the most expensive of the five programs offered in their proposal. Each month, that most expensive option comes to an estimated $83 per student, a relatively small investment for the chance to keep that student enrolled for four years at $300-$400 per credit hour a semester.
Put this in context with the recent revelation by Cleveland.com that the University of Akron has spent $950,000 renovating President Scott Scarborough’s house, a figure which includes a $556.40 olive jar, an $838.83 makeup chair, a $3,172 65-inch curved LED ultra HDTV and $7,200 for fitness equipment. Likewise, it’s hard not to think of the entire baseball team, whose reported costs hover around $700,000, being sacrificed during budget cuts. Meanwhile the price tag for Akron’s woefully under-supported football team is around $8 million a year, including the debt payments on its mostly empty stadium, with the Board of Trustees approving $91,000 in bonuses for head coach Terry Bowden.
Another consideration should be whether the newly hired UA alums will be able to handle the task. TrustNavigator estimates its Success Coaches will meet with 150-225 students a month, each for a half hour.
“This is a heavy workload and most probably stretching the limit of burnout risk,” the company admits in its proposal.
To make their plan work, which means hiring 20 coaches, the company says it will need “a full time commitment of an HR staff member and a great deal of University assistance and cooperation” with a “minimum budget” of “$70,000 a month but more likely higher as the full staff is assembled.” In other words, TrustNavigator recognizes it needs significant support from the university, which has just trimmed its staff by 161 workers.
Further, how does TrustNavigator know—without experience to guide it—what it has to charge to make its proposal work? And why would university officials have faith in that number? While the $1.66 million program from InsideTrack seems high, the company has a record and results supported by research. The possibility exists that UA could spend $843,000 with TrustNavigator and get nothing in return.
This is significant because the RFP sets, as the standard for winning the contract, that “(t)he submission should convince UA that outsourcing will provide the maximum direct benefit to The University of Akron students.”
Despite the lopsided scorecard, it’s hard to understand how the committee—whose recommendation was passed up to the Provost and the President for approval—could be convinced that TrustNavigator will be able to succeed. This is not necessarily the company’s fault. They have to start somewhere. However, working with more than 4,000 incoming freshman on your first big contract seems like it necessitates a dangerous learning curve for a brand new company.
Using the “maximum direct benefit” to UA students as the standard, you could judge InsideTrack was too expensive and TrustNavigator too inexperienced to warrant the contract. The university is not required to go with either. In fact, according to its own rules, UA can treat proposals like a buffet, picking and choosing the elements it likes best.
So, 2,200 words later, it feels like the original question remains unanswered: Why did the University of Akron choose TrustNavigator?
To attempt a clearer answer, we will soon post a second part to this story with a breakdown of each company’s proposals, accompanied by the scoring matrix and by the points given by UA’s committee.
Chris Horne has worked as a journalist and freelance writer for much of the last decade, including as a columnist and editor for The 11th Hour alt-weekly paper, a city hall beat reporter for the (Macon) Telegraph, digital content manager for 13WMAZ-TV and a web producer for Cleveland’s newsnet5.com (WEWS). He is the publisher of The Devil Strip. You can email him at chris (at) thedevilstrip (dot) com.