Q&A: Indy entrepreneur’s app tracks student attendance

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Indianapolis entrepreneur Jeff Whorley in January debuted a smartphone app that tracks whether college students go to class. A wave of national media attention followed.

His company is Core Principal; the app is called Class120, and it sends alerts to parents and others when a student misses class. The app has faced criticism for undermining self-motivation, among other things.

Whorley Whorley

But Whorley, 53, thinks it can help an American college system that graduates only about half its students in four years.

IBJ: After a year of testing and three months in operation, how’s it going?

WHORLEY: The national and local media attention was well beyond anything we anticipated and has gotten us off to a really terrific start. Interest from schools, particularly athletic departments, has been really solid over the last six weeks. We have somewhere north of 2,200 users.

Our biggest win so far has been Lynn University [in Boca Raton, Florida]. To have a school do a full implementation for all students was something in our plan to happen later. But it’s terrific. Lynn has about 1,800 students.

IBJ: Why has your app gotten the attention it has?

WHORLEY: We’ve raised our hands and said this college graduation rate issue is serious. It’s a horrible drag on higher education and our economy when 50 percent of freshmen don’t have a degree in four years and 45 percent don’t have a degree in six years.

But this is a solvable problem, and I think one of the reasons it’s gotten this attention is because we’re saying something pretty bold. All of the research that we’ve done and others have done leads us to the conclusion that, if class attendance nationally was at 90 percent or better, graduation rates would be at 80 percent or better. We believe the average attendance rate today is about 75 percent.

IBJ: Studies show there’s a strong correlation between good attendance and good grades. But what if good attendance isn’t the reason for good grades but rather a reflection of interest by the students who get good grades?

WHORLEY: It’s the chicken-and-egg question. Here’s why I’m confident that it’s causal and not self-selection. The biggest evidence is the graduation performance of Division I scholarship athletes.

The biggest difference between a scholarship athlete and a non-scholarship athlete at a Division I program is that the scholarship athlete has to go to class. And those students who don’t have better academic backgrounds, study skills, high ACT or SAT scores, more engaged parents—they have graduation rates between 84 and 88 percent in four years.

They’re not going to class because they are better students. They’re going because there’s a requirement. We just think that is a clear first-step solution—not the only step, but the first—to improving graduation rates.

IBJ: What’s your response to the criticism that Class120 handicaps students and undermines self-motivation?

WHORLEY: Some would argue that a product like Class120 is babying these 17- through 22-year-olds in college. Our view is that it’s just the opposite.

When you finish college and go to work for FedEx [or another company], they expect you to be at a certain place at a certain time. Having Class120 involves having a coach, academic adviser or parent saying, “Hey, we see you didn’t go to class yesterday.” It’s comparable to your supervisor saying, “Hey, it’s 9:30. You were supposed to be here at 8.”

We talked to one graduate who said she had to relearn accountability after college. She learned all the wrong habits in college because class was optional.

IBJ: You’re asking students to let you track them and tell on them when they miss class. Any unpleasant reactions?

WHORLEY: I think it’s reasonable and expected for students to say, “I would rather have the freedom to skip class without anyone knowing,” When I was in school, I would have preferred that my mother not know what my attendance rate was for Greek art history.

So that’s the knee-jerk reaction. But here’s what our surveys and focus groups have indicated: If you tell students that their college education is their parents’ second-biggest expenditure behind buying a home, is it reasonable for parents to ask that they do one thing while at school—attend class? We’ve had most students agree that was fair when explained to them that way.

IBJ: How has the transition from corporate America to entrepreneurship been?

WHORLEY: I enjoyed running a division at [Sallie Mae]. There, I was dealing with students who had problems with their debt. I want this company to help students be successful before they get into problems.

People often ask what I think the solution is for this $1 trillion of student debt that’s in our economy. My first answer is, let’s get everybody graduating. College is a great bargain for the people who graduate. And some college with no degree and lots of debt is not a good bargain.•

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