Startup to Offer Hybrid College Experience to Veterans

San Francisco—Most colleges are underprepared for the wave of veterans returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the largest influx since after the Vietnam War. The same is true of many employers.

It’s not that the colleges and companies aren’t looking for veterans, says Gunnar Counselman, the founder and chief executive of Fidelis College. But they often do a poor job of understanding how to attract veterans and help them acclimate to civilian life once they return, he says.

Fidelis, a San Francisco-based startup, seeks to help military members graduate from college. The company’s students will take lower-division courses at an affiliated online college while on active duty and then transfer to a traditional university. When they graduate, Fidelis will place them with employers it knows are looking to hire veterans.

Colleges and the employers will pay Fidelis for its coaching services aimed at helping students make a successful transition. “It’s like a talent agency for the military,” says Mr. Counselman.

Fidelis has raised $2.5 million from investors and expects its first class of students to start in mid-2012.

The company is one of a new breed of venture-capital-backed startups seeking to make money by partnering with existing colleges. Higher education has traditionally been a death knell for startups, but in recent years investors have been pouring money into startups like 2tor and Altius, which help colleges create and manage online programs.

Fidelis hopes to work with “half of the tier 1 colleges in the country” in preparation for its launch, Mr. Counselman says. It is in discussions with Harvard University, Stanford University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among others. The company is also in talks with the University of California about possibly providing new students for the university system’s online pilot program.

Mr. Counselman believes colleges will pay for the quality of Fidelis’s recruitment and student support. The company is building a Web-based software platform to serve as a portal for students throughout their careers. Students can log in and see how close they are to meeting a set of goals to help them get to enrollment, graduation, or employment. They will be assigned a mentor and have access to a seven-member board of advisors to help them navigate the college experience.

The goal is to help a group of students who don’t typically understand how college works, Mr. Counselman says. “We think students are underselling their potential,” he says. “They’ve been shortchanging themselves because they don’t come from college-going cultures.”

Fidelis’ platform is broad enough to serve as a portal for any student looking to succeed in college, and Mr. Counselman acknowledged that the company might eventually expand to serve all kinds of students. But he said that he was not rushing in that direction.

Most colleges do need help serving student-veterans, says Nate Schildbach, a communications and marketing manager at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which has a large veteran population. But the company could face a roadbloack if the advisers don’t know the ins and outs of individual campuses, says Mr. Schildbach, who was not familiar with Fidelis. ”So much of what the vet services here do is help the vet get through the bureaucracy,” Mr. Schildbach says. “You need to know who to talk to.”

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