Envision this: Students walking away from college graduation buried in debt. They hold a diploma with a degree that might look impressive, yet it doesn’t necessarily translate to viable job offers. Sadly, this is not an uncommon scenario these days. However, if Sung Rhee, CEO and founder of Kirkland-based college rankings and reviews company Optimal (formerly SR Education Group) has any say, this is a trend that soon will fade away.
These days, Optimal helps prospective students find their ideal college match by creating products and services that the company describes as “objective, accessible, and data-driven ranking and review sites.” These include OnlineU; GuidetoOnlineSchools; and, the most recent online tool, GradReports. So how did this concept come to be?
Rhee launched his company 17 years ago. He had been working at Microsoft and departed to create a venture-backed startup. He said it was a very different era, with the internet just coming into its own. Rhee was simply trying to navigate his way around this evolving realm with the goal of making money online. He started building websites and, at one point, was working on about 200 simultaneously.
While figuring out how to become profitable, Rhee began turning toward education. Initially, he helped deliver students to for-profit institutions (universities and colleges), yet he gradually picked up on aggressive marketing tactics that didn’t always sit well with him. That’s when, about 10 years ago, he shifted gears — rebranding the company and focusing on building an informational repository to help students make better decisions. (He likens these review sites to Yelp.)
At the time, the concept was revolutionary — assisting people in making decisions about their education by being more transparent. “It focused on the students instead of the college,” Rhee said. Over the years, the company has increasingly added hard-to-get ranking data, seeking information that can help make the college decision-making process less emotional and more qualitative. Rhee and his team are always trying to discover: “How are students faring after college? What’s the net impact? What’s the result?”
This past November, another huge opportunity emerged — leading to the creation of Optimal’s new product, GradReports. The development of this extensive, data-driven college rankings service came to be after the November release of a groundbreaking report by the U.S. Department of Education using data from College Scorecard. As part of an Obama-era initiative, the report revealed early-career earnings and median debt data that have been gathered throughout the country since 2015.
Although the timing was tricky (the report was released on Thanksgiving weekend), Rhee saw an opportunity to seize. He realized Optimal had access to really incredible information that should be seen by any student considering attending college. “We took it upon ourselves to get (the information) out,” he commented. For the first time, students can now see the full financial cost of a school, compared to the potential post-collegiate earnings for specific college majors. According to Optimal, GradReports is the only college ranking product to publish and synthesize the new report on median alumni salary (one year after graduation) and median alumni debt.
Rhee said the team’s new online tool puts a lot of things in perspective; it not only tells a prospective student what schools are doing well but also how much one major will earn versus another. The product features rankings for more than 70 campus-based bachelor’s and master’s degree programs, as well as 20 online degree programs. The new rankings appear alongside a compilation of 30,000-plus student reviews and recommendations for more than 2,000 schools.
Rhee’s team had a very tight turnaround between discovering the data in late November and releasing the new product in late January. Rhee said that it was “all hands on deck … a very heroic effort by the whole team,” with many making sacrifices to work over their holiday break. (He joked that winter is a great time to dive into a big project in the Pacific Northwest, since the weather is not always ideal.)
Rhee was deeply involved, writing some pieces for the website himself. “We were driven to deliver it in a very timely matter,” he explained. In the end, Rhee found it energizing to have the whole staff working together toward a common goal. He added, “It’s an awesome feeling to know what your team can do.”
This project strikes a personal note for Rhee, too, as a parent of two (while one child is in college, the other is in the midst of the decision-making process). Rhee finds it “super-gratifying” to see the direct impact of his work; his daughter, who’s currently immersed in the college search, is really excited about GradReports. It’s very important to her that she’ll afford to make a living, and Rhee said he can sense her interest and engagement. (Much to Rhee’s delight, his team notified him that his daughter even posted a comment about the new product.)
When asked why this work is especially significant, Rhee pointed to the “trillion-dollar student debt problem … a ticking time bomb” that worries so many in our country. “Over the next 10 to 20 years,” Rhee asked, “can we significantly reduce that being a problem if we have (the right) information?” Only time will tell, but we’ll certainly be rooting from the sidelines.