In a move that strengthens its position in the educational technology sector, Follett has acquired Chicago-based NextTier Education, a relatively new startup offering a platform designed to help students apply for post-secondary education programs. This acquisition builds on a previous arrangement announced in May 2018, where Follett became the exclusive distributor of NextTier Education products to domestic and international institutions.
NextTier Education has assembled its service, positioned as a “postsecondary education readiness platform” to help high school students with the process of applying to postsecondary educational institutions or career opportunities. Applying to colleges can be a daunting process for high school students. Challenges include knowing all the steps that need to be completed and meeting the required deadlines, which will usually be different for each institution. NextTier has created an app that brings all this information together and helps the student complete each task needed on schedule.
The NextTier platform provides features and knowledge bases to guide students through the college application process as well as identify options for financial support. The platform includes features that help students identify the institutions to which they are likely to have the best success for acceptance. The NextTier app incorporates aspects of gamification to motivate and reward students as they complete each step of the application process.
For schools or districts, the NextTier platform provides systematic tools to help guidance counselors and other administrators track and manage the progress of students in their jurisdiction as they pursue post-secondary options. In a typical educational setting, each school counselor may work with hundreds of students. The NextTier platform provides a comprehensive management and assessment tool for schools and school districts as they work with their students as they continue their education.
At the core of the NextTier platform sits a knowledgebase populated with detailed information regarding potential schools, application deadlines, and financial support opportunities. According to the company's website, sources for the data include the publicly available resources such as those from National Center for Educational Statistics and the Office of Employment Statistics, as well as from proprietary resources. NextTier uses technical processes and manual quality assurance methods to ensure the currency and accuracy of the data.
The integrated NextTier database includes extensive information regarding all types of educational institutions in the United States, including public and private universities, community colleges, and trade schools. Data available includes documents required for applications and submission deadlines. The platform can handle early admission processes as well as regular applications.
Students access the NextTier platform via an app available for iPhone and Android smartphones. After downloading the app, students can sign in using accounts set up by their school. Some schools may use the Clever authentication service (https://clever.com/), which provides integration and single sign-on among multiple campus applications.
NextTier does not submit applications directly to institutions but rather guides the students through the process. It provides links to the Common Application or other institution- specific forms.
NextTier guides the student through the college application process from start to finish. It brings together all the information needed for each step in the process, including the deadlines set by each school for submitting the application. Other tasks and target dates managed include required SAT tests, completion of FAFSA submission (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), submission of letters of recommendation, or other forms or documents required by an institution as part of their application.
The NextTier app enables each student to set up a group or team that might include parents or school counselors. This feature enables others to be involved with the process in a way that remains consistent with student privacy regulations such as FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act).
Strategic Positioning for Follett
According to Nader Qaimari, President for Follett School Solutions, the acquisition of NextTier Education fits well into the company's business strategy. Follett's businesses span PreK-12, post-secondary educational institutions, as well as public libraries. In the same way that NextTier assists students in the transition from high school to their next step in education or career path, its technologies can also serve as a bridge spanning Follett's business units.
From a product perspective, Follett plans to integrate the NextTier platform into its Aspen student management system, which is used by about 240 school districts in the United States and Canada. The NextTier platform would extend the functionality of Aspen beyond management of student records to tracking progress for each student in completing action items for their post-secondary educational plans. This institutional integration will also be available for schools or districts through integration of NextTier with the Destiny library management system.
Follett has also indicated that it would develop a version of the product oriented to public libraries, which would be developed through Baker & Taylor, which it acquired in 2016. This product would be oriented to municipalities interested in providing broad support to students preparing for college regardless of the high school attended.
Follett also sees the NextTier platform as able to support partnership between school districts and other educational organizations. There are an increasing number of arrangements where eligible students can attend community colleges or universities or state universities with no or reduced tuition. The NextTier platform could help channel students to these opportunities.
The acquisition of NextTier Education can be seen as part of Follett's strategy to reach beyond libraries and to provide business solutions that penetrate deeper into the organization of the school or school district.
According to Qaimari, Follett has ambitious plans for the ongoing development of NextTier in addition to integrating it with its existing products. Possibilities include incorporating virtual reality experiences to enable students to explore educational or career directions. Simulations could be developed, for example, to show students what it is like to work in a given discipline, such as chemistry, medicine, or engineering.
NextTier Education Background
NextTier Education was founded in 2014 by Justin Shiffman, an entrepreneur interested in educational technology. Shiffman's background includes serving as CEO of ActofGood.org, which focused on helping non-profits improve their use of social media. His educational background includes a M.B.A. from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a law degree from John Marshall Law School.
Jeff Allen helped launch the company and served as the company's Chief Technology Officer during its start-up phase. Allen had previously been involved in a variety of technology projects, including the project leader at Microsoft for the development of Xbox Live and as a Senior Vice President at RedBox for Technology. At NextTier, Allen shifted to an advisory role in 2016 as he become involved in other projects. The initial phase of NextTier Education focused on gaining traction directly with students, working to attract a body of users as the company worked out ways to monetize the service.
This consumer-oriented model eventually evolved into a commercial model based on institutional subscriptions from school districts or municipalities.
As a start-up, NextTier Education was able to raise funding needed for its technical development, operations, and marketing. The company raised $1.2 million in venture capital funding in 2014, supplemented by a $500,000 in debt financing raised in 2015.
Following the acquisition, Shiffman and the TextTier Education employees will continue their work from their offices in Chicago.
More information about NextTier Education is available on their website (https://nexttier.com/).
Follett Corporation, a large family-owned company with over $3.5 billion in annual revenue, offers a wide range of products and services spanning PreK-12 schools, colleges, and public libraries. The company offers print books, ebooks, reference material, digital resources, video, and other multi-media content to schools and retailers.
Follett has grown both organically through the direct development of products and through strategic acquisitions. The company's most significant expansion took place in 2016 with the acquisition of Baker & Taylor, covered in detail in the June 2016 issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter.
Other recent business transactions include the July 2018 acquisition of Fishtree, a company that had developed an adaptive learning platform based artificial intelligence technologies. According to the announcement: “The Fishtree platform brings together district-wide resources for every subject, aligns them to any standard or competency and then personalizes the experience for each student based on specific learning profiles, while providing a streamlined user experience for the educator and administrator.”
In November 2016, Follett acquired Valore Inc, a company offering a marketplace for students to buy, sell, or rent college textbooks. This acquisition complements Follett's other business activities in the college bookstore management sector. For a comprehensive listing of announcements regarding Follett's business acquisitions, see Library Technology Guides.
- Next Tier Education, Inc. SEC filing, United States Securities and Exchange Commission, accessed December 18, 2018, https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1622677/000162267714000001/xslFormDX01/primary_ doc.xml.
- “Follett Acquires Fishtree Adaptive Learning Platform,” Follett Corporation, press release, July 12, 2018, https://www.follettlearning.com/about-us/news/press-releases/press-release-follett-acquires-fishtree.