DURHAM — You never know when or where a good idea will grab ahold of you. For Henry Woodbridge, his good idea — a mobile app that could make affordable college planning accessible to all students regardless of their socioeconomic background — came to him in the middle of the woods.
Woodbridge can recall the exact moment the idea for the Undecided app blossomed in his mind. He was thru-hiking southbound on the North Carolina portion of the Appalachian Trail when he caught a glimpse of the illuminated Fontana Dam through the trees, and everything fell into place.
“I remember that being a really special moment and thinking to myself that I couldn’t go back to society after hiking the AT and hitting an office job that I didn’t feel passionate about,” said Woodbridge, founder and CEO of Undecided. “In that moment, I decided I wanted to take this next chapter in my life to do something valuable for society, and I thought that making a mobile app to help students better plan for college was the best way.”
Before striking out on the Appalachian Trail, the Chapel Hill native worked as a customer success manager and product consultant for an education technology company. In these roles, Woodbridge worked directly with the admissions department of several prominent universities, learning firsthand how schools recruit and market to potential students. He also became increasingly aware of what is driving the current student loan crisis.
“A large part of what makes up the student loan bubble and the inflating cost of education is that these universities are businesses that are trying to get as many people to come there and pay as possible, especially the lower nonelite institutions,” explained Woodbridge. “This becomes a problem when students take out loans, go to a school that isn’t a good fit for them and then drop out, which about 40% do. Now they don’t have a degree, they still have loans, and it’s even harder to pay them back.”
The best way for students to avoid taking on risky debt, Woodbridge realized, was ensuring that high school students have the necessary guidance when deciding to apply for college and picking the right school. Unfortunately, there is only one guidance counselor for every 500 public school students, and private college consultants charge at least $200 an hour. Some consulting packages even cost more than $3,000.
Woodbridge’s understanding of the importance of college fit is also founded on his personal experience, having based his decision to attend Guilford College as a young adult solely on something a professor said. Though the small liberal arts college ended up being the perfect school for him, he later struggled after transferring to UNC Chapel Hill, where the class sizes were larger and he had less access to his professors.
But now, thanks to Woodbridge, his team of software engineers, and a $10,000 MICRO grant from the NC IDEA Foundation, students from all walks of life have access to free college admissions planning, something Woodbridge wishes he had when he was applying to college.
Though still in its beta-testing phase, the Undecided app offers college-bound students several features, including guided college plans, which allow them to navigate the admissions process with ease; a college list manager that finds schools and categorizes them based on the user’s likelihood of acceptance; guided journaling prompts to help students internalize their goals and reasons for pursuing a college education; and an advanced AI chatbot named Deci that enables students to ask questions and receive immediate responses.
In mid-July, the Undecided team also launched a freemium subscription model for students and parents interested in paying to chat with a real certified admissions adviser, which just happens to be Woodbridge himself. Undecided’s optional fee is only $8.99 a month.
“Getting my certification to be a college admissions adviser and working with students is what’s kept my spirits high while building this app over the last year,” Woodbridge said. “At first, it was shocking how many basic questions we received, everything from ‘How do I apply to college?’ to ‘How do I find scholarships?’ It’s a great reminder of why we are building this app, and it keeps our team focused on our mission.”
In the future, Woodbridge plans to expand the app and offer guided personality and intelligence-type quizzes that will help students determine potential college majors. Undecided will also offer portals for direct parental access. But for right now, Woodbridge’s focus is on helping his users and actively fundraising, which he is doing with the help of several angel investors.
“Applying to colleges and doing the financial planning necessary to go is a real undertaking,” Woodbridge added. “Right now, the standards are so low for college planning that we can do some good almost no matter what, especially for public high school students who aren’t getting the attention they need.”