BERKELEY, CALIF. — In the corner of UC Berkeley’s Haas campus courtyard sits a local coffee shop called Cafe Think. It’s usually buzzing with students and professors grabbing a quick bite or using the space to study. During Manny Smith’s first week at Haas as an MBA student in 2019, he ran into Haas undergraduate Alyson Isaacs.
Smith, an Air Force Veteran, came to Haas after seven years of military service. As a next step in his career, Smith wanted to leverage his military experience to work on a socially responsible project that promotes human equity through entrepreneurship.
Smith was struck by Isaacs’s story: she navigated a tough community college ecosystem for three years before transferring into Cal’s undergraduate business program, which only has a five percent admit rate for transfer students. Her story prompted the question of why transfer rates from community colleges are so low relative to four year and even graduate programs. Upon doing initial research, Smith found that this problem was deeply systemic.
Their short meeting at Cafe Think catalyzed a partnership and forged their big idea: EdVisorly.
EdVisorly is an edtech software application designed to ease the university transfer process for community college students. By improving the transfer process, EdVisorly promises to create greater access to education, support community college recruitment, boost enrollment, and improve university transfer rates.
The EdVisorly team consists of eight California Community College transfer students, five international students, and three graduate students. They all noticed flaws within the California higher education system that could only be experienced first hand: an underlying caste system divided by socioeconomic status, race, gender, and nationality. Their solution is to create a more transparent and accessible program to alleviate the process for disadvantaged folks — simply put, EdVisorly is made for students, by students.
According to a 2018 study by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), ten million undergraduates were enrolled in public two-year colleges in the United States, with over two million in the California Community College (CCC) system.
Yet transfer rates from community colleges to four-year programs are very low. Only 18 percent of community college students actually transfer to universities within four years of matriculation. In California, the number is more staggering: 70 percent of students enrolled in the CCC system will neither earn a two-year associate’s degree nor transfer to a four-year college. Many of these students are underrepresented and underserved in higher education, oftentimes from lower income households, students of color, first generation college students, or parents.
Access to higher education provides a pipeline for upward mobility and equal opportunity. However, in part due to an overburdened administration, CCC students are not given adequate support and resources to obtain consistent university transfer guidance. An overburdened community college faculty, combined with evolving legislation for outcome-driven funding, aggravates the divide.
“There seems to be a lack of cohesion between the districts in the CCC space, which is ineffectual in higher education,” EdVisorly Business Development Lead Hanna Ving says. “If we strive for real progress, we cannot innovate at the pace of bureaucracy. We must instead perform at the pace of students’ needs and demands.”
Lizzie Allison, a UC Berkeley Haas student and EdVisorly’s Marketing Director, was recruited to bring her own successful entrepreneurial experience to the project.
“Counselors have an impossible task. My community college had counselors who managed 900 students each, which is an unreasonable workload,” she says. “It’s not necessarily the fault of any individual counselor; they’re overloaded. Making the transfer process easier and more effective for students will make a significant difference in the long term benefit to students, community colleges, universities, and the broader California economy.”
Essentially, the system has asymmetric and inaccessible information for students, perpetuating an inequitable cycle within higher education. So in creating EdVisorly, their goal was to pivot the focus towards students and create a centralized platform to universalize higher education and fight the status quo.
EdVisorly offers three-fold innovation: a planning software for students to map out a timeline of courses to prepare for the transfer process; a FAFSA completion widget that uses AI to fill out the complicated and tedious form; and an analytics platform that provides administrators with valuable insights in how schools can increase enrollment, retention, graduation, and transfer rates. It’s designed to democratize access to education by decreasing transfer misinformation and modernizing the student experience. Their focus stays at the student level, prioritizing student success.
“We want to stay student-focused and students first above all,” says Content Marketing Manager Brandon Ricci. “But we recognize that it’s not just students that can benefit. Our product will help retention rates, so there’s a huge value add for schools in keeping students around who might have dropped out because of misinformation and miscommunication.”
Data Architect Diyah Mettupalli says, “Our solution will also increase future community college population sizes because of the de-stigmatization around the ‘transfer route.’ Basically, we help students, which in turn helps the schools.”
Currently, EdVisorly is beta-testing across the California Community College student ecosystem, starting with individual students. Their target market now is now California, with a massive community college infrastructure and huge demand for such an innovation.
Smith recalls, “I remember people asking me, ‘There’s a market for this?’
“I thought to myself, those in the MBA program don’t even understand how hard it is to navigate as a transfer student to Haas. Only a handful of my peers in my cohort went to community college, which highlights the long-term systemic inequities that community college students face in the current higher education ecosystem. And learning that there was only a five percent success rate for community college students just seemed criminal.”
Since EdVisorly’s time with the Big Ideas program, the team has gone on to enter the Berkeley SkyDeck Hot Desk cohort, the Berkeley Venture Impact Fellows (BVIP) AMP Accelerator, the IVP Haas Seed Fund, the TechStars Launchpad Fellowship, and now UC Launch. These programs, along with the continued support of Big Ideas mentor Steven Horowitz, have been pivotal in helping perfect the product.
“I thought Manny and Alyson’s initial idea had great potential for social impact,” Horowitz says. “They’ve consistently proven me right. I continue to be impressed with the team’s commitment, compassion, sincerity, and intelligence. I’m proud of what they’ve accomplished so far, and look forward to EdVisorly’s continued growth.”
However, it hasn’t been all smooth-sailing for the team. Like any start-up, the student-led team ran into obstacles. UC Riverside Computer Science student and software lead, Divyanshi Srivastava, works a lot with data and oversees challenges on a daily basis.
“There are so many hurdles because we are trying to compile information from all of these sources and present them in a reliable, optimal way,” she says. “There are so many discrepancies that currently exist with inaccessible information. Currently, there are resources, none of which are reliable. We’re constantly adapting to new challenges, and taking everything as a learning experience.”
The team is using their funding towards not only software development, but also completing optimization and implementing more focus groups. Their passion for this project makes no problem too large.
Smith emphasizes the importance of a great team. “Surround yourself with the right people and the right support systems, and then do what you’re passionate about. Be willing to sacrifice for it.”
EdVisorly is just getting started. Their momentum is nothing to underestimate. They credit a lot of their traction to the fact that they had experience with the higher educational system. They are turning their utopian ideal of an unbiased, accessible, universalized education system into a working reality, all by disrupting the current system and improving upon it.
UC Berkeley Computer Science and Technical Product Manager Wajiha Zahid says, “While some people may see attending community college instead of going to a four-year directly as a weakness, EdVisorly sees it as one of your biggest strengths.”