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a Conversation With David Helene

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Following is a transcript of the conversation.

“While I don’t think the intent is by any means nefarious, the process for asking for help has often involved needing to visit an office, obviously pre-pandemic, to self-stigmatize, and then justify why an individual deserves help.” —David Helene

Goldie Blumenstyk: Welcome to Innovation That Matters, a Chronicle of Higher Education podcast, sponsored by HP. In this special series, we’ll be sharing the stories of change makers working to improve equity in higher education. Hello, I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, and that voice you just heard is David Helene, the CEO and founder of Edquity. David, thanks for joining us today.

David Helene: Thank you so much for having me, Goldie.

Blumenstyk: David, Edquity — why don’t you give us the one-minute spiel on what does Edquity do?

Helene: Yeah, absolutely, Goldie. Our work at Edquity is focused on supporting institutional partners around end-to-end emergency-aid administration, using a technology platform to optimize both speed but also equity in how we get emergency cash assistance to students.

Blumenstyk: There’s a responsibility right now, an increasing role, for colleges to be distributing aid. And in effect you’re the app for that?

Helene: Effectively we are. And when we started doing this work, most colleges and universities were really distributing philanthropic or some small state allocations for emergency aid. In the past 12 months, we’ve seen an unprecedented amount of emergency aid that’s been injected into the system because of the first two stimulus acts and an impending third, where we’ll be looking at about $32 billion of federal emergency aid that postsecondary institutions are having to manage.

Blumenstyk: It’s interesting. We met in 2018 at the South by Southwest EDU. You were a guest on my shark tank, The Chronicle’s “Shark Tank: EDU Edition.” But if I’m remembering right, the company back then, it was doing something pretty different. What sort of caused you to make these changes in Edquity?

Helene: Back when we first met, our work at Edquity was focused more on the front end of the financial journey for students. As I was thinking through this work, I was hoping to help students around every financial decision that they may encounter on the road to college graduation, which included sort of planning and understanding some of the financial implications of the choice decision. As I was doing this work, more and more and trying as hard as I could to get smart about some of the structural factors at play, it became increasingly apparent to me that, for many students, this sort of choice decision is an illusion.

Many students don’t really have the luxury of choice when they think about where to go to college and how to finance it. The reality for most students is that, because of how we’ve set up policy, most are going to run into an inevitable financial hardship. We began to shift our focus from planning and sort of optimizing decision making on the front end, to streamlining inevitable access to the safety net for students once they got there. We also wanted to acknowledge who today’s college student is. And as you’ve covered at length, we’re not necessarily talking about 18-year-olds anymore. We’ve gotten to a point when about 50 percent of students are now adults. In fact, the vast majority of the students that we serve are themselves parents.

Blumenstyk: I think when you started, you were kind of very much focusing this as an app that would be something that students would download and use themselves. And now you’re much more focused on sort of working with institutions. Where do you stand right now? How many colleges are you working with? And how many students are you serving?

Helene: We are still a student-facing app, but we are operating on behalf of colleges and universities as sort of their end-to-end provider. At this point last year, we had just sort of kicked off a pilot. In October of 2019 we were sort of three months into a pilot with Dallas County Community College District, where we had processed about 1,000 applications and issued about $200,000 in grants. Today we’re in over 30 colleges and universities across the country, we’ve administered over $14 million in funding, have processed over 40,000 applications, where sort of the most busy day that we had was 8,000 applications in a single 24-hour period. And we continue to grow fast.

Blumenstyk: Sad irony for you is in the way that the Cares Act, and really the crisis that the country’s facing right now, has been a little bit of a catalyst for your company and for what you’ve been doing.

Helene: It has. In many ways, it’s sort of the reckoning of generations of bad policy. It’s not something that the pandemic introduced. It’s something that the pandemic has laid bare for those who had sort of wool over their eyes. Certainly the Cares Act has been a catalyst for our business because colleges and universities are fundamentally not set up to give out this level of funding in a way that requires hours and hours of poring over applications, of decisioning, which can introduce things like implicit bias, require students to perform poverty, relive their trauma. But what my hope for the Cares Act is, in addition to of course catalyzing our growth, is to be a gateway to better, more enlightened, sustained policy in the years to come.

Blumenstyk: David, you said something just now that I’d like to double back on. It’s this notion that the awarding of emergency aid can sometimes require students to perform poverty. What did you mean by that?

Helene: If you think about the historical paradigm of help-seeking in the U.S., it involves assessing quote unquote, deservingness. And if you read the book Automating Inequality, by Virginia Eubanks, she does a really phenomenal job of sort of talking about the historical context there. This of course translates into higher education. While I don’t think the intent is by any means nefarious, the process for asking for help has often involved needing to visit an office — obviously pre-pandemic — to self-stigmatize and then justify why an individual deserves help. The problem with this is it can lead to implicit bias in decision making and often assigns morality to conditions of poverty. You may have a well-intentioned practitioner who may think, “Why does the student have an iPhone when they’re asking for emergency assistance?” Or they can see that their appearance may not be disheveled and say, “Well, the student doesn’t appear to be in terrible shape.” When realistically they may be dealing with food insecurity or another sort of latent issue, like child-care needs.

When you think about this framework, it benefits those who know how to ask for help. And we famously know who that is. It is not Black students, Latinx students, first-gen students, or other minoritized or underserved student demographics. And it’s a framework that advantages narrative over the objective conditions that a student is facing. In the context of an application — think Fafsa — that requires students to jump through these administrative hoops and do things like provide receipts to prove how poor they really are. When we say “performing poverty,” that’s effectively what we mean. And we do everything we can to avoid that paradigm. We ask only questions about objective conditions such as: Which of the following places have you lived within the last 30 days? Have you skipped a meal within the last 30 days? We try to ensure that students aren’t performing their poverty for us, but rather sharing objectively what they’re going through. And we use skip logic to ensure that the students see as few questions as possible, so that we’re being respectful of the scarcity of their time.

Blumenstyk: One of the things I find maybe paradoxical or maybe fascinating, maybe a little bit of both in fact, about Edquity is, your purpose is to help students when really they’re at their most vulnerable. And yet your approach really relies on some automation, and an algorithm, and some things that really don’t involve direct human empathy. Can you talk a little bit about that approach?

Helene: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. If you think about technology, often you think about automating inequality and widening racial-equity gaps. In the design of our work, we have to be particularly intentional about how we think about not just the design of an algorithm but also how you’re interacting with students. First and foremost, we take a equity-centered design to our work. We actually bring in students in the co-design process and make sure that students are representative of the students that we serve, which is fundamental to framing the user experience, to thinking through the language that we’re communicating to students with, to thinking about issues around trust. But to get to the heart of your question, Goldie, on the algorithm, we are very fortunate that we get to work with Sara Goldrick-Rab, who is the founding director for the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice.

Sara has certainly been, I would say, the leading champion and pioneer of research in the basic-needs-and-security realm, as well as around emergency aid. What we’ve been able to do is, we’ve been able to take her body of research and use that to inform the design of the algorithm so that we are assessing the objective conditions of students, and in doing so, by sort of awarding points to basic-needs categories, we are implicitly advantaging minoritized students without asking for their race. This is an algorithm that should actually narrow equity gaps, because it is seeing students for their experience. It’s not asking about worthiness of funds or deservingness of funds. It’s really focused on the fundamental conditions that they’re experiencing. And because those conditions are disproportionately experienced by Black students, by Latinx students, by Indigenous students, it really is geared toward narrowing equity gaps.

Blumenstyk: Can a machine really do this more fairly and more humanely than a person?

Helene: Well, we’ve seen that in the partners that we have served, we are serving a disproportionally minoritized population of students relative to the overarching demographics of the schools that we’re working with. In that sense, and it’s still early, and we have a responsibility to continue to do rigorous research, to make sure that we are indeed living our first value of being antiracist. It does seem to be the case that we are serving Black students, Latinx students, and Indigenous students at a higher rate than you would otherwise expect based on demographics.

And the other question about empathy is a really interesting one. And it’s a little separate from the algorithmic design, but it’s just as important. Because part of this is a sense of trust and belonging. What we’re doing is we’ve actually brought in an expert in residence, Chloe McKenzie, who has done some really pioneering work on the issue of financial trauma. And this is really nuanced research on how intergenerational wealth creation, or social constructs like slavery and how wealth is passed down, have impacted behaviors and attitudes toward wealth and access to wealth. And we’re using some of those insights to, again, inform the messaging in how we’re communicating to students. Really wanting to ensure that we’re seeing students, that we’re creating empathy in our language and really building that trust, because to your point, that is so critical as we’re interacting with students.

Blumenstyk: And on that note, let’s take a moment now for a message from our sponsor.

Mike Belcher: Hello, my name is Mike Belcher. I’m the director of ed-tech innovation for HP. And wanted to spend just a couple minutes talking about what do we do after the immediate aid and need is met for our students. And so once we’ve ensured those students have food and shelter, internet and device access, what does it really take to be ready for learning? And our fear is that if a student drops out during the pandemic, it may be incredibly difficult for them to get back to college, and be detrimental to their long-term economic potential. How do we maximize long-term benefit from one-time funding? We’re going to see a lot of funding coming to both K-12 and to higher education. Over $50 billion to K-12, over $20 billion to higher education, in the very near future. And most of that is aimed at Pell-oriented students. Students who are at that highest risk level.

We think one of those areas that can be maximized is really thinking about: What is that student’s future going to look like? Where is there going to be job growth? How do we help both students and faculty understand this? And I think we have to move really quickly. These funds are going to go away by the end of this year. And if we don’t spend them and spend them wisely to get that maximum long-term benefit, we think we’re doing all of us a disservice. In the 2020s, we’re going to see 75 million jobs be impacted by next-generation technologies. Meaning 75 million jobs are going to most likely go away. But in their place are coming 133 million new jobs that have requirements for high tech, for STEM backgrounds. And if we aren’t moving our students that direction and helping them think through this, helping our faculty understand that while it’s incredibly important to have a really great liberal-arts background and to have a great ability to communicate, et cetera, if we also tie in some component to STEM, man, those students have even more value.

As we look at some of that data and what just came out this past October from the World Economic Forum and their future-jobs outlook, the top three jobs growing in demand worldwide, all related to artificial intelligence and data science and data analytics, and almost every one of the other jobs that you see in that top 15, have some sort of connection point into data science. Things like virtual reality and situational learning and looking at additive manufacturing and more localized high-tech manufacturing. We have to kind of rethink what really makes sense for those students. And these jobs are the ones that have 40 percent more earning potential, that are growing two-and-a-half times the rate of non-STEM access jobs. If we aren’t thinking about that, if we aren’t putting resources toward it, we think we’re doing ourselves as well as our students a disservice.

The areas that we would really urge you to start to think through would be thinking about what sort of resources do we have. Are we attaching a STEM component, like data science, into our liberal-arts education, and to sales and marketing, into communication? Every sort of non-total-STEM-function job can benefit from some sort of STEM connection point and vice versa. Those students with those great communication skills and deep problem solving have really great impacts on those STEM and hard-STEM sort-of focused jobs and opportunities.

And so we would urge folks to really dive into this. If you haven’t been to the World Economic Forum, I would urge you to search that out and look at the 2020 future jobs report. If you haven’t seen, for example, HP’s lab website called the HP Megatrends.com, another great place to go to look at: What does the future of technology look like? Where are those jobs being created? What are those technologies that are driving this push? And so those would be areas that we would highly urge you to go to. I hope this was helpful. Hope you got a little bit of information that you might be able to drive forward, and please reach out to me anytime. Glad to help any of our higher-education clients and help folks think through this. Mike Belcher, and it’s [email protected]. We look forward to seeing you.

Blumenstyk: Thanks for that. And hello again, this is Goldie Blumenstyk, back to continue the conversation with David Helene, the CEO and founder of Edquity. You mentioned Sara Goldrick-Rab. A lot of our listeners are probably familiar with some of her work. How did that, as we might say in Yiddish, how did that shidduch — how did that match — come to be? How did you guys get connected?

Helene: When I was first starting a nonprofit organization called UniFi Scholars, which was my first foray into the education world, Sara very patiently helped me understand some of the approaches that I was thinking through, may have been misguided. Those may not have been the words that she used, but that was the message that I got. And that was in 2013, and I had the fortune of building a relationship with Sara subsequently over the years, just by trying to stay close to her research, by continuing to ask questions. As Edquity began to focus more and more on the core issues of her research, Sara became more interested in what Edquity was doing and the ability for us to see our mutual goals realized. Persistence on my part, certainly, but also patience and graciousness on the part of Sara.

Blumenstyk: And the relationship that started out with her being a little bit of a constructive critic?

Helene: And rightfully so, to be clear. Again, I think that the approach I was taking was one that was based on common frameworks, as we think about quote unquote financial literacy. That if you give someone information, they’ll just use it. And we know that that’s at odds, both with behavioral psychology, but also how we think about issues of scarcity, how we think about the concept of financial trauma. I’m grateful to Sara for helping me open my eyes a little bit and encouraging me to do my homework.

Blumenstyk: Edquity is a company, and some people might find it odd that there’s a for-profit company making money on administering emergency aid to needy students. How do you reconcile that?

Helene: I tried to do it as a nonprofit and couldn’t get it off the ground. What’s been a very constructive development over the last few years is that seed-stage impact-investment vehicles have become more and more prevalent. And we’ve seen social entrepreneurship become a much more common strain of capitalistic enterprise. Mark Benioff wrote a very interesting article in The New York Times, talking about a new type of capitalism that’s required for this day and age. One that is acknowledging the society that we live in, and that we need to be better corporate citizens and actually act toward an actual social goal. But certainly we have some of the constraints that a for-profit enterprise has. We have to be a revenue-making enterprise. We have to be approaching profitability. And I think we are very lucky that the education space, in particular, has a very strong and rich group, social-impact investors and foundations.

We’ve been very lucky to partner with funders that share our values and who have allowed us to see through our impact mission without having to compromise on it. To have to make decisions that are at odds with our overarching mission. And I remain optimistic, particularly as more and more investors are taking a stand against some antiquated practices about how we think about what matters, that only revenue matters and only profitability matters. I think a new corporate-citizenship model is emerging. And I think that that has come at a time that has allowed us to be successful and get this seed-stage entity off the ground.

Blumenstyk: And all that said, I don’t know that many companies out there that now have a sort of a required, recommended reading list that I just saw that Edquity put out. What’s the point of that reading list?

Helene: Well, I think it’s important that folks understand what is informing our work. Goldie, I think the questions that you asked are the right ones, and they’re important questions to ask about how do you know that your algorithmic design is not going to automate inequality or exacerbate equity gaps? I think it’s important for folks to know what we’re about. If I were on the outside, I would have an inherent distrust of a company like ours, quite frankly, because there are many that represent that they’re doing good for others. And in fact, we find later on that the unintended consequences are vast. I think that we have to be pretty transparent and open about our building process. I think we have to give folks the right to peek under the hood and keep us accountable. And also quite frankly, it would be really great if everybody read those books.

Blumenstyk: You mentioned research earlier. I know you’re also doing a project right now where you’ll be evaluating some of your work at Western Governors University. How do you hope to use this research to shape your work?

Helene: We are a sort of an unconventional for-profit organization in that our end game is systemic policy movement. And we have a unique opportunity to do foundational research. A, because the body of literature around emergency aid is pretty nascent, but also B, it just so happens that we have a world-class researcher on our team. We have built some natural experiments into the design of the technology, which allows us to do ongoing evaluation of the impact of the work that we’re doing. There’s sort of two components there. One is we can keep learning. And that’s really important for an organization like ours because we have to continuously get better. And we have to really scrutinize what not just the aggregate impacts are, but also the impacts across demographics.

Blumenstyk: At one point you’ve talked about using Edquity to help students locate other kinds of aid too. Maybe discounts at car-repair shops, maybe discounts at hotels one night, if they get stuck somewhere and they need to sort of stay in your campus for a couple days. Are you still hoping to try to create this system? The reason I ask is because I’ve been on campuses where I’ve heard about the need for that, and it seems really a vital piece of what colleges could offer.

Helene: Yeah, we are absolutely hoping to be able to execute on that work. And we think that there’s a big opportunity there. Candidly, to your point, Goldie, colleges have been doing this in a really scrappy way themselves, and they get a lot of credit because that’s not what they were set up to do. But we do think that that model can be scaled and is better sort of run by someone who’s focusing on that work full time, as opposed to colleges who, again, are sort of re-engineering themselves as social-services organizations.

We right now are pretty narrowly focused for the next two quarters on getting federal funding to students as quickly and equitably as we can. But as we look down the road, we really do have aspirations to think through how we can bring discounted offerings to students around different basic-needs areas, how we can use emergency aid to maybe sort of actually pay vendors directly. Although that gets into a very interesting research question because that’s sort of a voucher. We’re interested in exploring what the difference between voucher-based programs versus direct cash transfer looks like when you talk about research. But absolutely, we want to continue to build out more opportunities for students to bring down their cost of living.

Blumenstyk: Seems like it’s a win-win, even for the campus communities too. It brings in maybe a little extra business for some of the local hotels, local car shops. People might benefit from that in other ways.

Helene: Absolutely. And we’ve seen it work in places. We’ve seen Cal State San Jose partner with Airbnb to house thousands of homeless students. We’ve seen Amarillo College partner with a local mechanic to help students with transportation issues. It is, to your point, a win-win-win, in that the student is served, emergency aid goes farther because you’re getting a discount on it, and you’re procuring local business and you’re helping support economic development in the region. It’s a really transformative model.

Blumenstyk: What else do you see as really high priority for the company right now?

Helene: One of the areas we’ve also been looking at, interestingly, is the issue of rental assistance. We’ve seen as part of the last two stimulus bills, billions of dollars going toward critical rental assistance because we’re at a time now when folks are dealing with thousands and thousands of arrears and back payment. And if you think about what that problem is, it’s fundamentally an application-verification decision and a payment, either to a landlord or a tenant. We are well-architected to support folks around cash transfer generally. And as an organization, we want to continue to do more for students, but we also want to continue to get money quickly to folks who need money. And that’s something that we’ll continue to think about.

Work-force development is a really interesting space. Employers are now investing more in emergency-aid programs as an employee-retention tool and productivity tool. These are all things we’re very excited about and see as opportunities for the organization and are going to continue to explore as we move deeper into the year.

Blumenstyk: I know there have recently been some expansions of eligibility for the SNAP program.

Helene: We would love to help on SNAP as much as we can. SNAP is a really interesting, nuanced, difficult space for technology to operate well in because of the specific county-by-county rules. There are many organizations who have done it pretty well, like Benefit Data Trust, for instance, has been helping folks around SNAP for a while. Benefit Kitchen is another. It is really hard to do SNAP enrollment well, but I think that we can do our part to help students know that they’re actually eligible or possibly eligible for it in the first place. Rather than helping with actual application for SNAP, I think we can work with colleges to help refer students to programs where they might be able to enroll and are very excited to see the changes in the rules, which are certainly long overdue, but also to help colleges now get students to enroll.

Blumenstyk: Lots of folks who do equity work come to it because of their own personal experience. We heard that in our earlier podcast with Aimée Eubanks Davis and her work at Braven. I’m just wondering, what’s been sort of the motivating factors for you?

Helene: Yeah, I appreciate that question. And I should say, I fundamentally believe that folks who are closest to the work and have lived experience are the best to lead organizations. That said, that actually isn’t me in this case. Sara has come up with a #RealCollege for sort of the movement of the true experience of college students, which includes basic-needs insecurity. I joked on a Twitter thread last night that my upbringing was #RealPrivilege. I was very fortunate to not have to worry about my basic needs when I was going to college or secondary school. My father, however, was a real college student. And he went to CUNY at a time when the Pell Grant effectively covered tuition.

What I sort of acknowledge is that my experience, my ability to realize so many opportunities, was the product of policy that was really enlightened. And the fact that my father, who had a very different upbringing than I did, was able to go to college and get his degree and actually get his master’s as well. I’m grateful for that opportunity. And I think that it’s imperative that we return to a policy environment where everyone has that opportunity. And think that it is incumbent on me to make the most of my opportunity to create those opportunities for others. That’s really where I’ve been motivated.

Blumenstyk: Hey David, thanks so much for joining us today. This was a really great conversation.

Helene: Thank you so much for having me, Goldie. Was my pleasure.

Blumenstyk: This has been Innovation That Matters, a Chronicle of Higher Education podcast sponsored by HP. For additional episodes, look for us on the Chronicle website or your favorite podcasting app. I’m Goldie Blumenstyk.

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