Interview | J.T. Allen Walks Students Forward with myFootpath

J.T. Allen started myFootpath in 2000 with his mother, a longtime guidance counselor. Initially, they created the company to try and make the “going to college” process easier for students and families. “As anyone that’s been through this process can attest, it can be extremely difficult, complicated, and frustrating,” says J.T.. “We set out to make it better.” Today, with over 100 employees, a more than 1,500 percent three-year growth rate and a spot on the Inc 5000 list, myFootPath is focused on developing a best-in-class experience to help users find education options and other opportunities for life enhancement. Put another way, they help people “find their footpath.” They deliver the experience through their website, www.myfootpath.com, and through their team of education specialists who work out of their 100-seat call center in Chicago’s West Loop area. “Most people that contact myFootpath are what we call Adult Learners, or people ages 25-40, often looking to go back to school – to either finish their undergraduate degree or pursue a graduate degree,” explains J.T.. “Most people contact myFootpath to learn about education options as a means to improve their career.” The company works with over 1,000 colleges, and have over 300,000 different degree and program combinations. “We help people understand the various options,” says J.T.. “Our service is free to users, and is supported by fees charged to colleges.”

Victor: How is it unique from other similar products/services and what companies do you see as in the same market?

J.T.: We believe in the “student first” approach. In everything we do, we ultimately are trying to help the student understand various education options, and how it helps them take the next step on their footpath. To do that effectively, we need to have a wide variety of education programs available to ensure that we can meet the goals of both our users and our college clients.

There are a number of companies that help colleges recruit students. Just search for the term “bachelor’s degree” on Google and see for yourself. On a good day, myFootpath will make the first or second page of those results, but it is definitely a competitive space!

Victor: How do you set yourselves apart?

J.T.: We try to set ourselves apart through our Education Specialists. If you call 866-305-8525 during business hours, you can talk to someone who can help find a variety of options for your specific needs. Whether you call in to our center or you use the resources on our website (www.myfootpath.com), we try to differentiate ourselves through the experience.

Victor: When was it developed? What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?

J.T.: Like many new companies, our business model evolved over time. We weren’t always sure which direction to pursue. Everyone who is familiar with our industry knows how broken this process is, but there’s no widespread agreement on how to fix the problem. We developed the experience as a way to help users evaluate lots of education options and give select colleges a chance to compete for students. I wish that we had taken this approach from the start, but it’s actually the third iteration of our business model. We’ve now helped over 1,000,000 people so I think we’ve got the formula right! As a company, myFootpath must continue listening to our users and our clients to grow and expand in ways that meet the 21st century demands of the marketplace. Over our company history, we have seen an increasing number of students start college, more and more Adult Learners returning to complete college, the introduction of widespread online courses and degrees, changes in student loans and government funding, and deep integration and adoption of technology in the classroom. All of this means that we must evolve the experience along with the marketplace. If we keep the experience at the forefront, we will continue to help users improve their education, their skills, and ultimately their careers. 

Victor: What’s a typical call like?

J.T.: A typical call to our Education Specialists in our call center may start with the user asking something like the following, “I’ve got 30 credits from another school. It’s been two years since I last earned college credit, as I’ve been taking care of my elderly mother (or working to save for school, or caring for a young child, or, essentially, dealing with life as it gets in the way of school). I’m ready to go back to school now. I’d like to get my degree in Business. Can you help me find some online options to complete my degree?”

The myFootpath specialist will then typically ask more questions to understand what type of business degree the user is looking for. Would they want to pursue an accounting degree or are they considering a degree in entrepreneurship? The specialist asks questions about the motivations of the user and how a degree may help them accomplish their goals (provided that a degree does actually help the user accomplish their goals). We then recommend up to three specific college options, with many more available on our website. We provide a series of emails and content after the call that assists the user with various aspects of the college planning process.

Victor: Who’s this for and not for?

J.T.: The myFootpath experience is designed for Adult Learners, typically ages 25-40, and individuals that are focused on their career. While we help people across all ages, from high school graduation up to retirement, our core audience tends to fall in the 25-40 range. We also tend to focus on colleges and universities with minimal admission requirements. Over 70 percent to 80 percent of colleges have either no or minimal admission requirements. myFootpath clients need students, and they actively recruit prospective students in the marketplace. We help our users with everything from certificate programs to doctoral degrees, but the bulk or our degree and program combinations tend to be for Associate’s and Bachelor’s Degrees.

The myFootpath experience is not targeted towards traditional high school students transitioning to college. Typically, the traditional student looks for a variety of academic, athletic, and social components to their college experience. We tend to focus only on the academic area, and we add another component – focusing education towards a particular career.

Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days?

J.T.: As alluded to earlier, education has really evolved over the last decade.  We see several significant trends playing a role:

  • Over the last few decades, people with a Bachelor’s Degree (of people over age 25) has more than tripled; the population of students ages 25-44 pursing a college degree has more than doubled; and the income premium and employability has steadily widened for those with a degree versus those without.
  • In the last decade alone, there has been a proliferation of online learning options across a number of program areas and degree levels. In the next decade, we believe that some portion of nearly every college degree will be conducted online.
  • In the next decade some skills may be learned online without a college degree as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) become more mainstream; in particular, we believe that employers may create best of breed solutions between college degrees and some other forms of online leaning.

The experience we offer is built to help people find education options. We expect that the education options will evolve and change over time. Of course! Does anything ever stay the same? If we keep these trends, this 25-40 demographic, and ultimately the needs of employers clearly in our sights, myFootpath will capitalize on these trends.

As we grow and evolve at myFootpath, we’d like to develop deeper interactions with our users. Right now, we focus primarily on the evaluation stage of the college process. Over time, we’d like to expand our role in admissions and retention. We have begun to do that with our suite of Enrollment Management and Retention products for colleges. While we are still in the early innings in this area, we believe it’s a tremendous growth opportunity in the industry.

Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating myFootpath?

J.T.: I had a more traditional experience. I went to a top 50 college, had four years of studying combined with lots of fun along the way. It was the best experience of my life. But, I had a deep support network of relatives and friends who had gone to college before me.

What I’ve learned at myFootpath is that I was extremely lucky. Most of the population doesn’t have the kind of support network that I did. They need help. They may need assistance finding the right courses, or they may just need someone to listen and tell them that “of course you can get your degree”. I want to make sure that myFootpath can support our users with our “experience” — to help people “find their footpath”.

Victor: Got any really interesting or quirky stories?  

J.T.: Be sure to check out all of the great content on our site, www.myfootpath.com . Our team covers a lot of topics on our blog, with a particular focus on different career tracks. But, we do have a lighter side as well. Check out some of our favorite articles such as the “Best Colleges in Movies and Television“, or “Dream Internships: Top 5 Companies Where We Want to Work” and “Top 5 Worst Fictional Careers” and “5 Golden Rules for Getting Along with Your College Roommate“. As our users pursue their goals in life, we hope they will have some fun along the way. That’s our approach, anyways!

Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of myFootpath?

J.T.: I decided long ago that life is too short to not enjoy what you do. I love myFootpath and all that we bring to the education industry. If you share in our passion for education, give us a call. If you are a college, there’s a good chance we can help you recruit students effectively. If you are just interested in what we do, I always like to find people who enjoy lively conversation and open debate. Who knows, maybe we’ll even find a way to get into a business adventure. I’m a firm believer that if you apply your passion and effort to solve problems, good things will follow.

___

Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest. To enter the 2013 EdTech Digest Awards Recognition Program, write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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