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eCornell gives high school students an analytic edge

A collaboration between eCornell and the nonprofit National Education Equity Lab is giving high school students in underserved communities the opportunity to develop skills in business analytics while also gaining the confidence to recognize they can excel in college, even in the Ivy League.

The partnership has resulted in eCornell’s first certificate course aimed at high school students. Pre-college Analytics and Spreadsheet Modeling is a four-week pilot course that launched June 24 with a class of 132 students, who are learning how to organize and analyze data in Excel and use that information as a decision-making tool.

This course follows a “buy one, give one” model, whereby 60 students recruited by eCornell each pay $150 to enroll, which helps offset the costs of 72 students selected from Equity Lab’s network of partnering underserved high schools across the country. All of these schools receive Title 1 federal funding because of their high concentrations of poverty and families in need.

“Highly talented, motivated students in our lowest income communities – who tend to be largely students of color and first-generation students – are often unable to demonstrate that they’ve got what it takes to be a successful college student,” said Leslie Cornfeld, founder and CEO of Equity Lab. “Research shows that current college admissions metrics can mask talent, particularly for low-income students. Education, we know, is the number one lever for social and economic mobility, and the future success of our country.”

Equity Lab works to advance educational and life opportunities for highly talented, low-income students and students of color by collaborating with philanthropic, nonprofit and academic institutions such as the Common Application, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and Harvard University. Equity Lab and eCornell were brought together by Steven Carvell, vice provost for external education strategy, at a crucial time. COVID-19 has created an enormous surge in the need for innovative online education models, especially in communities that the Equity Lab targets, which have been hit hardest by the pandemic.

“These are the families that are on the front lines in our country right now. They are not only the essential workers. They are suffering the highest levels of unemployment, food and housing insecurity, and illness,” Cornfeld said. “And in the midst of this crisis, these students leaped at the opportunity to take this course.”

While some teenagers might blanch at the idea of spending a month of their summer vacation learning about spreadsheets, most of the slots Cornell made available to the Equity Lab students were filled within 24 hours of posting.

“These students don’t get opportunities like this very often, and they are determined to take full advantage of it,” said Cornfeld, a former federal civil rights prosecutor who served as an adviser on education equity issues for former President Barack Obama’s administration.

Knowledge of data analytics is essential for anyone hoping to join the 21st-century workforce, and it’s also a practical tool for managing personal finances, according to Donna Haeger, professor of practice in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, who created and teaches the course.

“I always tell students that understanding how to make decisions with data is becoming just as important as reading and math,” said Haeger. “Businesses are really challenged right now to find qualified individuals who know how to model and make decisions using data. It doesn’t matter what industry you choose to enter. Data is everywhere.”

Haeger previously created a professional development certificate course in business analytics for eCornell. She modified those materials for a high school audience by simplifying the terminology and using age-appropriate examples. Rather than investing in a diversified portfolio, students solve problems like organizing a bake sale or buying clothing for a sports team. Haeger worked with eCornell to develop explanatory videos that are incorporated into the modules. And she added a weekly hourlong synchronous group session, so students can ask her questions directly and feel more connected.

“This course is a great equalizer. Everybody is able to jump in and try it for the first time. And it’s low risk for them,” Haeger said. “I think people are really intimidated by terms like ‘big data’ and ‘business analytics.’ I try to demystify all of that and make sure the students have a really positive experience. They realize, ‘Wow, I can do this.’”

The Equity Lab team has also been meeting with the students in weekly sessions to track their progress. Their feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, Cornfeld said. While the material is difficult, it has given them a chance to prove to themselves, and to higher education institutions, that they are able to meet the challenge.

For Donovan Blount, a rising senior at Rockaway Collegiate High School in Queens, New York, the certificate course is potentially life-changing.

“Opportunities like this are important for students like me because most students who grow up in low to average income neighborhoods cannot afford prestigious classes,” he said. “So a free, informative class like this can open up doors of opportunity that we did not know were even possible.”

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Lindsey Hadlock