Going after an industry giant in K-12 college and career planning wasn’t what Katie Fang originally had in mind when she started SchooLinks in 2015. Back then, it was a website where high school students and parents could research college options. Such services were a dime a dozen, she quickly learned.
Three years later, she set her sights on something bigger. After talking to school counselors, administrators and superintendents, Fang says she “realized the college-readiness market needed a makeover.” For SchooLinks, that meant broadening its portfolio of tools to better serve and connect students and their counselors, all with the goal of helping students identify their interests and goals and find opportunities to achieve them—as early as middle school.
For students, the service offers a self-guided curriculum to explore their interests and career options, along with a financial aid calculator, scholarship and internship listings, a way to manage letters of recommendation and even virtual reality tours to check out campuses. For counselors, there are application management trackers, a communication dashboard, course planners and other administrative tools for meeting state reporting compliance requirements.
In all, SchooLinks boasts over 80 features. One recent addition is an integration with Common App that allows students using SchooLinks to directly apply to the 900 colleges and universities.
This path has led the Austin-based company to compete head-on against one of the most established players in the business: Naviance. To aid in this effort, SchooLinks is backed by investors who recently contributed $7 million in an oversubscribed Series A round.
Leading this deal is Live Oak Venture Partners, which is joined by Juvo Ventures and SJF Ventures. To date, SchooLinks has raised $8.3 million in venture capital.
“Other platforms we saw have generally ignored the second ‘C’ of [college and career readiness,” says Arrun Kapoor, managing director at SJF Ventures. “In speaking with district leaders, ‘career’ is no longer an after-thought, even for high performing districts. Regulatory and parental scrutiny is increasingly focused on how schools prepare students for their career regardless of whether or not those students attend college.”
And similar to how Instructure challenged and eventually overtook Blackboard as the dominant player in the learning management system market, “the same market opportunity and dynamics are true here,” Kapoor adds.
Fang is aware of what she’s up against in Naviance, which was founded in 2002 and says it is used by over 13 million students across 13,000 schools. Research suggests the tool has had an outsized influence on where students apply to college. Naviance was recently acquired by PowerSchool, which is the most widely used provider of student information systems and other education data services in K-12 schools and districts.
Having used Naviance when she was in high school, Fang has plenty of sparring words about its shortcomings. But she’d rather let the team’s results speak for themselves. Today, SchoolLinks serves about 500,000 students across 14 states. Many recently switched from Naviance, including Dallas Independent School District in Texas and Greenville County Schools in South Carolina. The company charges districts an annual license fee based on the number of students they serve.
To investors like Maia Sharpley, a partner at Juvo Ventures, this traction is evidence that it is “quickly becoming the system of choice” and a promising sign that Fang’s team has “cracked the K-12 sales process.”
SchooLinks has had periods of positive cashflow, according to Fang, though the team has been investing resources in growing its team and expanding into new areas. That includes efforts to “launch a lot of employer-facing features to facilitate work-based learning opportunities for students,” she says.
Fang says she’s had a couple of acquisition offers in recent months, but turned them down out of concern that they would not be in the long-term interests of her customers. “The offers were good, but it’s not about the price. Sometimes, when competitors feel threatened, there’s a sense that they just want to acquire you to shut you down.”