Asha Owens and Rebecca Kwee started BestFit as a research project in Fall 2017. At first designed to assist students in selecting a college, it has evolved into a platform that helps users meet their basic needs as they work toward their desired degrees or credentials. Now, BestFit is one of five finalists in the U.S. Department of Education’s Future Finder Challenge to reimagine career navigation for adult learners.
As a finalist, BestFit is participating in a six-month virtual accelerator to build and test its digital tool. We spoke with CEO and co-founder Asha to find out how the BestFit team is making the most of the accelerator and to learn more about the tool.
BestFit has been matching students with wraparound support services for some time now. How does the digital tool you’re developing support that goal?
Asha: BestFit’s tool is a universal eligibility screening tool. It takes a lot of the forms you would have to complete for different federal assistance programs and consolidates their questions into a single screening tool that students can complete in under 10 minutes to predict their eligibility for different benefits programs like food, housing, and utilities. For the challenge, we’re working to improve our product architecture and expand the universe of benefits that we screen for. Our goal is to increase the number of federal programs we screen for, while also integrating community-based programs and on-campus resources, which could be things like laptop and textbook programs.
You started BestFit as a tool for postsecondary education students, but you’ve increasingly focused on supporting the needs of adult learners. What have you found most exciting or inspiring about designing for a different type of learner?
Asha: I think it’s the dedication that these learners have in pursuing their education in the face of the barriers they’re presented with and the responsibilities they have to juggle. Personally, working on this problem also gives me the ability to integrate a lot of the things I’ve learned across different disciplines and schools. At Brown, I studied neuroscience, computer science, and education. And then at Columbia, I studied instructional technology and media. It’s really fulfilling for me to think about how all of those disciplines come together and influence equity- and community-centered design, and how we can reduce the friction that adult learners face on their paths to getting their credentials or degrees.
What parts of the accelerator have you found most useful in helping you meet the unique challenges of designing for adult learners?
Asha: One particular challenge is understanding the adult education landscape. I think the part that’s been most valuable and which aligns with what we’re hoping to get out of the accelerator is learning to navigate the adult education market in general. With edtech, solutions are developed and they might be good, but they aren’t necessarily sustainable, because it can be hard to break into the market, especially at the postsecondary level. So I think that’s been one of the greatest benefits of the challenge. We have started to break down the adult education market and understand the various programs and funding sources. I hope that by the end of the accelerator we will have developed a strong way to articulate our value for that customer set. And we have also made some great connections through the subject matter experts that have come to speak with us.
When you listen to the voices of real people, you can figure out real solutions that have an impact.Asha Owens
You’ve talked about your tool and the role of the accelerator in supporting its development. What are some of your specific developmental priorities?
Asha: So product development is a big one and it runs in parallel with demo day, which gives us a deadline to work toward. Building out the product and making the adjustments for adult learners have been big priorities. We’ve been doing a lot of planning to get additional user interviews and conduct other types of user discovery. That’s been a huge focus. And we’ve also been doing quite a bit of planning internally to make the most of the time we have with the mentors and all the sessions and workshops that are coming up, because we find those really valuable as we try to refine our marketing and make our value proposition clearer for adult ed customers.
Those customers would be workforce development programs, technical colleges, two-year colleges, and even some four-year colleges. We’re also thinking about apprenticeships. A wide assortment of postsecondary programs help people either upskill or switch careers, and serve learners and students who have other responsibilities outside of school. These learners are working, they have kids, they’re caregivers for other adults. Part of what we’re learning through the challenge is what types of funding those programs might have to be able to support students on their journeys.
What are you learning from speaking directly with adult learners about their own experience and needs?
Asha: I would say everybody on our team struggled in some way or had challenges in some way with the non-academic portions of college. And in our experience, what we found when we talked to other edtech developers and folks who are trying to help people graduate — or reach whatever their milestones are — is that solutions are often developed without actually asking students what they need.
Our goal is to make sure we’re actually listening and responding to what students have identified as their needs and not what we feel like those needs should be. When you listen to the voices of real people, you can figure out real solutions that have an impact. And I think we should focus on centering these voices in our process so tools are co-designed, rather than “prescribed” like a lot of solutions out there.
The pandemic really opened a lot of folks’ eyes to the fact that a lot of students are just struggling with the basics. And if you don’t have your basic needs met, it doesn’t matter how much extra tutoring or office hours or whatever other academic enrichment you have access to. If you don’t have the energy or the mental capacity or even the time to engage, then it doesn’t help.
Looking beyond the challenge, what’s next for BestFit? Where would you like to be in one year, or even five years?
Asha: A year from now, we’d like to be working with a number of adult education and workforce development programs. And five years from now, we would like to have a very strong user base even outside of postsecondary education; the other thing we’ve learned through the pandemic — and working specifically with students who are also parents — is that there could be a broader use for our tool as a family-centered tool beyond postsecondary learners.
Looking ahead: Judging and beyond
At the end of the accelerator, finalists will submit their market-ready tools and accompanying proposals, and present at a live demo day this fall. A judging panel will review the submissions against the Stage 2 criteria and recommend a slate of winners to the Department. One grand-prize winner will receive $500,000, and up to two runners-up will receive a share of at least $250,000, to be announced in fall 2023.
Beyond Stage 2, the challenge will support winners into 2024 as they deploy their solutions. To help promote further innovation, challenge resources and videos will remain available to all entrants as well as to those who did not participate in the challenge. Innovators are encouraged to continue using these resources to develop new digital tools that reimagine career navigation for adult learners.