If there was a theme to the just-concluded 82nd legislative session it was do more with less, and Rep. Dan Branch, Dallas Republican and chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, embraced it by attacking the cost of college from multiple angles. He pushed through legislation to try to lower what students spend on textbooks and to encourage that undergraduate students file — and stick to — degree plans.
Four miles away, on the second floor of a South Austin office building, Michael Crosno is working on the same issues by applying pressure from the outside. He is not a policy wonk. He is a businessman who has built and sold a string of successful software companies.
Not long ago, Crosno, 59, thought he would make the move into the education arena as a college instructor in business. But he did not have the influence he had hoped he would have.
“What I learned through teaching and being associated with educational institutions,” he said, “is you need more. A bunch of good teachers is wonderful, but it’s not going to solve the problems in higher ed.”
Crosno’s newest venture could make him a national player in efforts to reduce the time it takes a student to graduate — perhaps the most effective cost-savings method there is. Slightly more than half of all college students nationally graduate — if they graduate at all — in six years, not four.
“That’s one statistic that just drove me bozo,” Crosno said. “My goal is very simple: get more kids to go to college.”
In 2008, Crosno teamed with Chris Chilek and John Cunningham, two Texas A&M University graduates running Pick- a-Prof, a Web site best known for allowing students to rate their professors. The following year, the company was rebranded MyEdu, and its mission became more comprehensive.
“Just rating a professor is meaningless to me,” Crosno said. “It’s not going to help my daughter graduate. At the end of the day, what’s really important is how do you balance semester by semester, course by course, the workload over four or five years.”
The company’s revamped site still allows for professor ratings, but students can also customize a degree plan that matches their desired workload in each semester and, if they choose, can help them devise the quickest path to graduation. The company, which was recently featured in a United States Chamber of Commerce re- port on the future of higher education, claims that 70 percent of users graduate on time, nearly double the national average.
MyEdu now includes 775 colleges and universities, up from about 60 when Crosno joined. In the first five months of this year, he said, the site logged about 2.5 million users.
MyEdu also lets students compare textbook costs. Part of the money from sales made through the site comes back to the company, one revenue stream alongside contextual advertising and sponsored content. Crosno said early efforts to charge for MyEdu services fell flat.
But he is not convinced that shaving textbook costs will create the most meaningful savings for a student. For example, he said, more savings can be gained by taking advanced placement classes to reduce the courses that need to be taken on a degree plan.
The Austin office includes dozens of computer-science-minded 20-somethings engaged in constant, widespread data collection. Crosno said that of about 60 staff members, half focused on data collection — by scraping in- formation from public Web sites, submitting open-records re- quests, perusing course catalogs and gathering student comments — and the other half focused on turning that data into user- friendly applications.
“It’s a gold mine of data,” said Margaret Spellings, a former United States secretary of education, who is considering a formal business relationship with MyEdu.
“I don’t think Michael even knows what a powerful policy tool that thing can be, not only for consumers but for policy makers and for institutions themselves.” Spellings said.
About a year ago, Gretchen Ritter, a vice provost at the University of Texas at Austin, suggested to the registrar’s office that it pay attention to MyEdu with the hope of imitating some of its services. The university is currently revising its degree audit system, and Ritter hopes to include degree-planning features in the final product.
MyEdu “tells us where there is a felt need by our students for help or services,” she said.
She would not rule out using outside vendors, but said, “Most large universities tend to have a culture of ‘grow your own,’ when it comes to technology tools.”
Ritter said such technology could let advisers, swamped with students as enrollments increase and funding decreases, devote less time to paperwork and more to working with students on a developmental level.
Crosno said he anticipated that with resources likely to re- main scarce, public universities would be looking for more out- side partners. He also said he believes that the pressure from out- side private technology companies will have a more vivid impact on cost reduction than will legislation.
“Show me an industry where technology has not disrupted or made it more efficient,” he said, “and I’ll show you an archaic industry.”