Asha Owens and Rebecca Kwee combined their ideas to connect underprivileged high school students with college students to fight the issue of "summer melt.”
We wrap up our Black History Month spotlight series with an African-American woman who is creating her own legacy in the world of education through technology. Every year, millions of students around the country leave their homes behind in pursuit of higher education. As exciting as this process can be for many around the country, there are nonetheless plenty of instances in which new students must face unprecedented challenges, including difficulties accessing some of the basic resources any young adult needs to get by. To help students in this precarious situation, Asha Owens, the CEO of BestFit, and her business partner, Rebecca Kwee, created a service aimed at improving quality of life for college students everywhere.
In the fall of 2017, two grad students at Columbia University’s Teachers College bonded over the many things they had in common, including the fact that they had both moved from their home states to live in a new area without visiting the location first. For Asha Owens, the jump was from Columbus, Georgia, to Brown University in Rhode Island, then to Columbia University in New York City; Rebecca Kwee had moved from Singapore, which meant an even bigger adjustment.
Both Owens and Kwee had signed up for the Teachers College’s first EdTech Innovation Award competition, and although they had done so separately, they quickly decided to combine their efforts. The goal of their project? To research and address the issue of “summer melt,” the term for when a large percentage of students accepted to colleges and universities don’t actually enroll when the time comes. In particular, their focus was on identifying some of the reasons why almost three-quarters of underprivileged or underrepresented students don’t end up with a degree.
The result of their work was a concept they called BestFit, and it won the grand prize at that year’s EdTech Innovation contest: $2,000 in cash and Amazon Web Services credits to help get their product off the ground.
This first BestFit prototype earned Owens and Kwee a number of accolades, including more than a few that came with grants. At the 2018 South x Southwest festival in Austin, BestFit made it to the finals of that year’s Pitch Black: The Future is Female contest, and the 4.0 Schools Tiny Fellowship awarded the Owens-Kwee team $10,000 for their program.
The pair’s biggest break came in the form of the Algorithm for Change competition hosted by NYU’s Social Entrepreneurship Program and sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. On July 12, Owens and Kwee pitched BestFit to a panel of judges as part of the contest’s final round, and they were named the winners later that evening. The prize: $100,000 and a six-month professional mentorship.
When BestFit was first conceived, the aim was to create a program that could connect high school students with those in college to better educate juniors and seniors on what they should consider when picking a school. Topics of discussion included the realities of campus life, the academic demands of higher ed, and other potential hurdles a new college student might come up against, and the feedback from early BestFit users was positive.
As it turned out, the early functionality wasn’t to last: Subsequent iterations of the BestFit app changed the program’s role pretty significantly. This second version of the app combined partnerships with a variety of schools and publicly available resources to help teens and young adults find schools that checked all their boxes, so to speak; instead of connecting students to one another, BestFit evolved into a tool meant to match prospective students with a college that best fits their background and circumstances.
And still, the development of BestFit was far from over. As time passed, the focus of the program shifted again, this time away from outside partnerships and toward a one-stop shop for students in search of basic necessities. When it was finally launched as a web app in April 2020, BestFit offered – and continues to offer – a number of resources for students living away from home.
Whether you’re on the hunt for affordable health care, reliable Internet access, free meals, or other forms of assistance, BestFit can point you in the right direction. For now, the bulk of these resources are concentrated in the Atlanta, Georgia, area, where the company is based, but information is available for communities nationwide, and resources are added all the time.
Moving away from everyone you know to attend a distant college or university isn’t easy, and for many students, trying to find ways of funding that effort only adds to the stress. If you or a loved one is planning for college – either soon or in the distant future – consider opening a 529 plan with the free Sootchy app to earn tax-free returns on your college investments. Learn more by visiting us online or downloading the Sootchy mobile app today.