Edtech Insiders

Helping Gen Z Navigate Life After High School with Clay Colarusso of American Student Assistance

July 03, 2023 Alex Sarlin Season 6 Episode 15
Helping Gen Z Navigate Life After High School with Clay Colarusso of American Student Assistance
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Edtech Insiders
Helping Gen Z Navigate Life After High School with Clay Colarusso of American Student Assistance
Jul 03, 2023 Season 6 Episode 15
Alex Sarlin

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Clay Colarusso is the CMO and SVP of Digital Strategy at American Student Assistance, a national non-profit changing the way kids learn about careers and navigate a path to postsecondary education and career success. 

Clay and his team focus on creating transformational digital experiences to support today’s youth in the development of their post-high school education and career plans. They recently launched ASA’s latest digital resource, EvolveMe™, which helps teens in middle and high school gain critical life and career skills and earn rewards along the way.

Recommended Resources:
Gen Z is Struggling: 5 Things They Need For A Bright Future by Tracy Brower, PhD

Show Notes Transcript

Send us a Text Message.

Clay Colarusso is the CMO and SVP of Digital Strategy at American Student Assistance, a national non-profit changing the way kids learn about careers and navigate a path to postsecondary education and career success. 

Clay and his team focus on creating transformational digital experiences to support today’s youth in the development of their post-high school education and career plans. They recently launched ASA’s latest digital resource, EvolveMe™, which helps teens in middle and high school gain critical life and career skills and earn rewards along the way.

Recommended Resources:
Gen Z is Struggling: 5 Things They Need For A Bright Future by Tracy Brower, PhD

Alexander Sarlin:

Welcome to EdTech insiders where we speak with founders operators investors and thought leaders in the education technology industry and report on cutting edge news in this fast evolving field from around the globe. From AI to xr to K 12 to l&d, you'll find everything you need here on edtech insiders. And if you liked the podcast, please give us a rating and a review so others can find it more easily. Clay Colarusso is the CMO and SVP of Digital Strategy at American Student Assistance, a national nonprofit changing the way kids learn about careers and navigate a path to post secondary education and career success. Clay and his team focus on creating transformational digital experiences to support today's youth in the development of their post high school education and career plans. They recently launched ASA's latest digital resource evolved me, which helps teens in middle and high school gain critical life and career skills and earn rewards along the way. Clay Colarusso Welcome to EdTech insiders.

Clay Colarusso:

Wonderful to be here. Thank you for having me. Yeah,

Alexander Sarlin:

thanks for being here with us. So first off, tell us a little bit about American Student Assistance and its mission and a bit about your role in it in marketing and in digital strategy.

Clay Colarusso:

Sure, happy to. So ASA is a national nonprofit that changing the way middle and high school kids learn about career and education options, and paths after high school. My role it is a is really just working with a fantastic team of product and partner professionals, marketing and creative data research and insights, gurus who are all contributing to trying to bring innovative solutions and resources to help us along in their journey.

Alexander Sarlin:

It's a really important mission, especially right now where the options keep proliferating and changing. It's just such a complicated landscape for young people right now. And, you know, sa just launched a brand new initiative called evolve me, which is a platform for teenagers between 13 and 18, to prepare for their career journey, by incentivizing them to explore different careers to experiment to take actions that advance their career interests. It's a really interesting project. And it's based on some internal research from HSA that shows that about two thirds 65% or more of students feel they would have benefited from more career exploration in middle or high school. I certainly am in that 65% I wish that side school had been more career oriented. Tell us about what brought about the Evolve me project and what it's like.

Clay Colarusso:

Yeah, I mean, it's a great question. And honestly, it's kind of a culmination of the last five years of our work when we first started this back in 2018. You know, we wanted to just see if we could even engage kids in the areas of the places I mean that where they spend most of their time. And so we started with a series of videos, you know, that were essentially Dayna Life videos, a whole host of different careers, just to see if we get kids to stop the swipe. But we always knew from the very beginning, that this was not a one size fits all solution. Were engaging kids as early as middle school. And we're trying to stay with them all the way through their high school journey until that moment where they have to make a critical decision about their futures. And so we always knew we were going to need to augment that initial solution with a whole host of other digital solutions or resources, help them on this journey. And so, once we started with that data Life series, we realized, you know, it might help if we provided these kids with an assessment tool that might help them surface some of their own any abilities or interests that they might not be aware of. I mean, we all kind of know what we see every day. And if you don't get a chance to experience something, in your day to day life, you may not realize it, you're interested in it or be you might be really good at it. And so we moved into innovative work or design work around a new innovative platform called Future scape. And that's essentially what it is. It's an assessment tool that helps kids figure out, you know, based upon their own skills and abilities, what careers might be a good fit for them, and then the required education in order to put them on a path to that desired career. From there, we wanted to make sure that as kids, we're having these conversations with the adults in their lives, whether it's a parent, a guardian, a mentor, a guidance counselor, or coach, whomever it may be, that they were strong advocates for whatever it is that they wanted to do with their lives. And so that was the genesis for next week. case, which was a product that we released last year. And then when it came to the final sort of experience in this spectrum of services or resources that we're offering, we realized that it's so critically important that kids have a chance to try before they buy, and experiment with a whole host of different options before they make a decision. And that was really the impetus for evolve me, you know, they've had a chance to explore a bit, they've had a chance to hone their skills around becoming powerful self advocates, you know, for a career or a path or educational path that they think they're interested in? How do we make sure that they are sure about what they're choosing to do with life after high school? Well, we went out, and we designed a platform that is partner driven, and pulls from wonderful resources in a whole host of actual different spaces, building 21st century skills, asking a professional Know Yourself assessments, work based learning opportunities, to give kids a chance to really try on all of these different tasks, these career paths before they make a final decision. And that was really the fully realized articulation of the digital strategy.

Alexander Sarlin:

Let's talk a little bit about these partners who say this is a partner driven platform, and you have a lot of partners, a partner organizations that are providing these career tasks. And these sort of, as you say, like a, you know, trial period type experiences where kids can explore different career pathways. Some of the partners we know very well at the podcast, like tyto, games makes, you know, amazing, immersive game platform or work simpler, which is all about exactly. You know, this helping people find gigs that that they can serve, try on work hat. Tell us about the partnerships and how you brought this constellation of all these different groups together to add value to the evolving the platform?

Clay Colarusso:

Yeah, well, I mentioned before the very beginning of our conversation, we've got just a wonderful partnerships team that is just out there, beating the pavement looking for any and all interesting resources that will really help kids along in this journey. And they've been hard at work for the past year trying to identify folks who are willing to work with us in a whole host of different areas. As I mentioned, a lot of it's around, you know, skills development, social emotional learning, and we're always looking for assessment tools and work based learning opportunities, mentorships, anyone and everyone who's willing to partner with us, we are willing to consider. So you know, we don't know what the perfect mix of activities yet are. I mean, we launched with 15 partners, and we're constantly adding to that partnership ecosystem. You know, given that every child, every kid is on their own unique journey, we want to make sure that we've got the most comprehensive and robust, rich and diverse offering of partnerships, and resources across a spectrum of services and skills that we think every child should have the opportunity to develop along their journey to making this critical decision at the end of high school. So while we started with 15, and you mentioned a couple of them, you know, we're hoping to exponentially grow that this year and beyond,

Alexander Sarlin:

well, if any of the listeners to the podcast are working on, you know, you're working with organizations or on tools that are about giving students the ability to explore and try on different careers, please, you know, connect to AASA. It's really, really a cool idea. And you mentioned that, you know, you go out of your way to meet these learners where they are, and you started with video, because learners are watching a whole lot of video. You know, the development of this evolved me platform is also very sort of CO created, I was co created with a huge panel of middle and high school teen advisors, who provided feedback on the site features on the functionality, even on the name on the UX, and you got it quantitative validation after with over 4000 More than 4500 young people. So I really admire this, this is something that not every ad tech project or company can do or has the research arm to do to do that much co creation. Tell us a little bit about what that process looks like working with these panel of advisors, and then you know, 1000s of young people as sort of beta testers.

Clay Colarusso:

Yeah. So it's great. And first of all, I think that moving into a co creation type mindset, with this demographic, I think everyone has to immediately just be prepared to eat a lot of humble pie. And boy, we certainly did. And it was great because these kids were involved in this process every single step of the way. We mentioned that we work with 4600 or so kids in constantly validating every decision that we've made on the platform during development. That's not hyperbole is absolute fact everything from fonts and imagery to code. or pallet, they named it for us, you know, nevermind the features and functionalities, we would go in there based upon the last round of research over two dozen discrete research initiatives quant and qual throughout the build process, thinking that we finally nailed it only to have, like I said, that humble pie serve backup to us, it's pretty great to have, you know, a few dozen kids 1314 My own children's age telling me, No, you're close to kind of miss it again, and having to go back to the drawing board and continue to refine, it's just it's such a wonderful opportunity to hear directly from the people that you're trying to help. And to have that input reflected back in the finished product. Yes, it may be makes things a little bit stretches out the build cycle a little bit. But it's well worth it to invest the time and the energy to make sure that demographic is working alongside you to co create a solution, a resource that's going to hopefully help them in their journey to decision making.

Alexander Sarlin:

I really admire that process. I think it's something that you said, uh, you know, it extends out the bill a little bit. And I can imagine going back to the drawing board having to, you know, please, these Gen Z teams and really get them to love the product, you know, in real time must have been difficult, but as you say, incredibly rewarding, and then you feel really confident that what you're coming out with is, is hitting the nail on the head, I think it's a really smart process. You mentioned before the idea that kids don't have a lot of opportunity to explore careers. And I definitely feel that way about my childhood. And in people I know, you know, people wanted to be teachers, because they spend time with teachers, they wanted to be doctors, because they went to the doctor, but they weren't exposed to you know, data engineering or prompt engineering or, you know, I mean, a million jobs it paralegal I mean, people just had no idea what anything was happening there. And I think it's really interesting, because I feel like this generation is a little more sophisticated than we were about the sort of options available to them, not necessarily careers, but the post secondary options. And there's some really interesting research that American Student Assistance did interviewing Gen Z students. And this sort of blew my mind a little bit, it was like 40% of the survey respondents said they somewhat or strongly agree that they feel college is their only option. 40%, less than half, I think, in my day, that would have been, you know, 85%, you're 39% considering options other than four year college, and 30% actually saying that the traditional path of college immediately following high school doesn't even make sense 30% of the respondents, so you just have this wildly different view of what to do after high school, then, you know, we've talked about in the past where college sort of either you go to college, or there's a vocational path, but it wasn't just wasn't that accepted as a possibility. And I'd love to hear about your take on this, because as you're giving high school students, you know, advice about their careers and about, you know, giving them the chance to try things on and self advocate, as you said, which is great. Part of that involves, you know, how much education would you need? And in what format to get that career? How do you have that discussion in this complicated environment?

Clay Colarusso:

Yeah, first of all, I couldn't agree with you more about the level of sophistication and degree of sophistication of this demographic, these kids surprise and delight me every single chance that I get to speak with them directly or hear from them. They just seem to have such a control and a vision for what they want their lives to be. And it's just such a refreshing take. You know, I think I'm a little older, I think, even than you and you know, I had the same experience. College was a default option. It was just assumed that Yes, after high school, you would go to college, and whether it was a right fit for you, or whether it ultimately was a path to the career that you want to stand up and was was almost an afterthought. You still had to go through, you know, that traditional four year higher educational experience. Well, you know, what, we are educational path agnostic. We are putting the kids first. And whatever it is that they're interested in, we want to make sure that they are aware of all of the opportunities, career and the associated educational requirements that will allow them to ultimately land in that desired career, completely agnostic, whatever they want. They are driving this bus, at least in my mind, and we are simply sitting shotgun, our job is to surface all the options to provide them with the resources that they need in order to make sure that they're making an informed, confident decision about what they want to do next. And then you know, hand them off, if you will, to the path that they have explored, vetted, validated and selected. So you know, we are not anti A traditional four year school, but we are also much more, I guess, open to whatever path ultimately lands you in a desired career of your choice.

Alexander Sarlin:

It's a really exciting approach from my, you know, my perspective, because I think the world is changing so quickly, right now, it's sort of hubris, I think, for anybody to try to, you know, WAG a finger and say, This is the only way forward, it just isn't, you can't prove it anymore in a way that, you know, there is still, of course, we know a college premium in terms of earnings, right? People do, as of this moment, still have make more money in their lifetime, if they have at least a bachelor's, you know, four year degree. But I think that that environment is changing so quickly. And so many employers are looking for skilled employees in skills that just didn't exist, you know, very recently. And it feels like that era in which college is the default, I don't, I have felt like that has been sort of moving downward for a while and seeing this research of, you know, 39%, considering options other than four year college 40% feeling for your colleges, their only options, like evenly split there is really amazing. I'm curious, you know, you spend a lot of time with these kids, you're saying how they're really sophisticated, how they really, like have a lot of ideas? Where do you think they're getting their information from, say, in the absence of evolved me in the absence of future scape, and all of these great tools that you're making? Where have they been getting information about possible post high school and career pathways?

Clay Colarusso:

Well, and that's just it, you know, certainly there seems to be a burgeoning effort within k 12, to try to bring some of that into the classroom. But, you know, I wonder if every child who's in a classroom, in every school across the country is having equal opportunity to access that. So what we wanted to really do is make it available in the one place where we know they all are, and with 96%, smartphone penetration, with this demographic, we know they're on their phones. So we put it out there. And we essentially brought it to them, we wanted to meet them, where they're spending hours every single day, and that's on their mobile devices. So we do a lot of our marketing, you know, in our advertising, on the places where they're spending hours every day checking their statuses, communicating with friends, reading content, consuming content, and just engaging with resources, you know, I don't want to name any organization or company, you know, call them out there. So but there are certain search engines out there, they're incredibly powerful tools, they're amazing, they can connect you with any piece of content that's out there, circulating the world, if you know what to search for. And if all of these kids, you know, have a feeling that I kind of want to do this, or I may want to do that, or I'm interested in pursuing a career in XYZ, but I'm not sure you know how to do that, how to become that what education I need, what apprenticeship I should pursue, they'll never going to be connected with that through a traditional search engine, they're never going to be able to find it. So we're doing is trying to aggregate and curate the best of the best that will help them along this journey, put it in one place that makes it easy for them to put their hands on. And to do that exploration and experimentation. It's also important, before they make a really important and potentially costly decision about their futures.

Alexander Sarlin:

I think it's a really fascinating project and really, really inspiring in a lot of ways. Look at your list of partners. And it's you've mentioned this idea, this will be my last regular question here. But I just keep wanting to dig into this, you mentioned that, you know, a lot of the partners are offering these try before you buy type experiences, the ways to sort of get a taste of what it might actually be like to be in a certain career path or pursuing a certain set of skills or things like that. I want to sort of ask you about what that looks like because this is partner driven. It's not that you know, each one is a 30 minute module that where you're going immersive in this way. They're all coming from different partners who have different you know, sets of curriculum and different attitudes. What is the span of experiences look like? If you're a student you're on Tik Tok, you get an ad saying, hey, come to evolve me and find out what you might want to do with your life. You go okay, that sounds interesting. You go in and you have all these really, really interest you have assessments, you have all these different opportunities, what kinds of things can you actually do?

Clay Colarusso:

Well in that's just it, you know, some of the activities within the evolving you're not things that kids may be naturally inclined to do on their own, or find on their own. And so there's a blend there. There's obviously an opportunity to consume passively consume content, which we know is an organic behavior for this demographic. But there are some other things that may be a step further that might feel uncomfortable or require more of a time. and commitment or require, you know, stretching beyond the comfort zone, how do we get kids to engage with those activities, that's the incentivization piece behind the entire platform, you know, we get it, this might not be the most comfortable activity for you to pursue, but we believe it's worth it in this value in it, that's going to help you along your journey. So if you do it, we're going to give you 500 points, we're going to give you 300 points. And when you reach a certain threshold points, you can redeem those for a gift card, maybe in the not too distant future in terms of scholarships might be available when you reach a certain threshold of points. So we're really looking to create nudges. So we can push kids, or encourage cancer incentivize kids into engaging with content, resources, information that may not necessarily appeal to them at first blush. And it runs the gamut. It could be around, again, 21st century skills, development, transferable skills, it could be around engaging in assessment tools, to get to know myself what I'm inherently good at, in addition to what I might just be interested in, or where my passions lie, and the overlap between those pursuing a work based learning opportunity in internship connecting with a mentor. I mean, some of these are really, you know, long term, meaningful opportunities for kids to connect with folks who are either doing that job now or know what it takes to get into that job of the future, can share that knowledge with a child who's currently considering whether or not is something they may want to do.

Alexander Sarlin:

I love it. You know, we've been talking in the education world about college and career readiness for many years now. And what strikes me as I hear you describe all these options that students can pursue inside the platform is it really takes the College and Career Readiness idea and makes it tangible? It's like, what does this really mean, to be ready for a career? What kind of education? No, that's called College, it's not necessarily a college, but what kind of education might you need to get into that career, much more of a working backwards approach, then, you know, we've seen in the past where people like you've said, you know, sort of stumble out of high school, assume that they're going to go to some kind of college make, a lot of people don't get to go to the colleges, they want, two thirds of people don't go at all, and then it's sort of just you're sort of, I don't know, left to sort of wonder and fill in all the gaps on your own. And all of these tools, feel like they're so empowering, and then putting them together in a system with incentives and UX that's vetted, it's a really exciting idea.

Clay Colarusso:

It all starts from a place, Alex, you know, we really need to listen to this demographic, we need to listen to these kids, because they may be willing to make trade offs in their lives that we weren't willing to make when we were in the same position, right? Like, what if they're not so concerned with owning a home someday, or starting a family someday, or, you know, staying with one company for 30 years and retiring at 62, or 65, once you start to get into the motivations, and the behaviors and the preferences of the kid, and you really listen to their aspirations of what makes a happy life for them, at least at this stage of their life, it opens up a whole host of opportunities in terms of what resources you can either build, or go out and curate, to serve up to them to help them along in this journey. But you have to be willing to listen to their view of the world appreciate their view of the world, respect, their view of the world. That's sort of, you know, again, going back to my comment around them driving the car enough just to sit in shock on if you will, yeah, we have to be willing to hand the keys over. And listen. And once you do that, it completely changed the way that the work that we were doing in the digital space evolved, you know, we realized it could be a lot bigger than where we initially started a lot more comprehensive, lot more robust, and actually be a spectrum of resources that can stay with this team. As they progress through their middle and high school years, all the way up until that critical decision point. It's not going to be this one engagement, where they come to a website, they check it out. They're there for five minutes, and suddenly they've got all the answers to their lives. It's a seven year spectrum of interventions or engagements with them, serving up the right piece of content at the right time, to the right kid, to help them as they process this information bumped up against what's important to them, so they can make an informed decision about what's right for their life. After high school.

Alexander Sarlin:

Yeah, it really is brave to, as you say, hand the keys over to this next generation and let them sort of explore and navigate and make sense of this incredibly complicated world that I don't think any of us know what's coming next, you know, on their own, but if you inform them, you give them the information, tell them what to say. For, give them a little bit, you know, a mentor, you know, that can really change somebody's entire trajectory. So I want to ask you, you know, the two questions we always end with. The first is what is an exciting trend you see in the EdTech landscape right now, from your particular perspective, as you know, CMO of American Student Assistance,

Clay Colarusso:

so what I'm really starting to see now, and it's absolutely thrilling to me is that, it seems like teams are being started to be invited into the conversations more and more frequently, it's no longer this sort of pedantic, you know, trust me do, as I say, it will pay off in decades or whatever, if we don't want, let's have a bi directional conversation with these kids, let's really get to the heart of what matters to them and what they aspire to be not just in terms of a career, but in their lives, you know, how do they want their lives turn out, and starting to engage them in a deep and meaningful conversation? So I just I think that there's so much opportunity, once, you know, the folks who are in roles, like the one that I'm in, are willing to sit back and listen, and then react to that reflect it back to these teams and say, am I getting it right? Am I hearing you? Right? And of this resource help in that journey? Yeah.

Alexander Sarlin:

Yeah, it's sort of that co creation co design. Yeah, it does feel like it's a little bit on the rise. We talked to the John Ganz Cooney Center. And they're really, you know, advocates of playtesting. Everything really bringing in the student voice. I know, Toca Boca, out in Sweden does an incredible job of this. But it feels like there used to be just a few people. Now it's starting to become more of a go to idea. I think that's really exciting. And what is a resource that you would recommend for somebody who wants to learn more about any of the topics we discussed today could be you know, a book or a blog, it could be just a place to look to learn more?

Clay Colarusso:

Yeah, I'll start with a place to look to learn more. Because if you really want to put your finger on the pulse of, of what this demographic thinks, you have to go where they are, you have to spend time with their conversations amongst themselves are happening, and just listen not to again, to necessarily jump into the fray and offer a point of view. But to really, really get a sense for what they feel, what they believe what they're passionate about, what they aspire for themselves. And for this world, you know, they're about to inherit, to be you got to go where they are. And so it's all the usual suspects. And I don't think you necessarily need to name them. But you know, all of the social platforms where millions and millions of kids are congregating daily for hours, and basically laying bare their souls around these topics. You know, that's where I spent an uncomfortable amount of time, honestly, just listening, and, you know, luring a whole bunch of interesting dances and other things at the same time, but really listening to their perspectives and points of view around the lives that they want for themselves, you know, when they're ultimately in our shoes, and it's gonna happen sooner than later. But in terms of really point of view, a really interesting point of view that I came across not too long ago, I think it's from January of this year, you know, there was a contributor, her name's Tracy browers, at Forbes, I thought it was just a really interesting perspective around how this this generation is struggling in the five things that they need for a really bright future. And so that was an article that struck me, again, I got the sense that it was driven from a pretty serious listening exercise. And anything that starts with listening, you know, to the generation is bound to be insightful, in my humble opinion.

Alexander Sarlin:

Well, we will put a link to that article that sort of brings the voices of the next generation into the conversation and we will put that in the show notes for this episode. And check out evolve me we didn't even you know, get into how it's got these adorable animations and graphics, and you're growing a plant and you're getting all these. It's just like incredibly fun just to be in the platform. So that's obviously a nice thing too, and takes a lot of work. Clay, it's been great Clay Colarusso, chief marketing officer and Senior Vice President of Digital Strategy at American student assistants. Thanks for being here with us.

Clay Colarusso:

Oh, and thanks again for your time I really enjoyed. Thanks for

Alexander Sarlin:

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