Laptop with ConnectEDU on screen/Stock photo Laptop with ConnectEDU on screen Stock photo

Michigan's forthcoming Web-based platform that will help students and their families make college and career connections might initially sound like another Facebook knockoff.

But the state, which purchased the portal for $1.15 million, insists that the Michigan College Access Portal (MiCAP) is not a clone of Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or any other popular social media sites. In fact, ConnectEDU, the Boston-based company building the portal, refuses to even call it a social network.

"It's a purpose network," said ConnectEDU President and CEO Craig Powell. "We leverage concepts of social networking, but for a defined purpose of education and career transitioning. This could not be replicated in a Facebook environment. It's tough to explain without seeing it."

By integrating social networking strategies with personalized, secure data -- such as transcripts and test scores -- education portals give students more control of their futures, proponents say. In one example , Massachusetts' college and career Web portal, www.yourplanforcollege.org, is being tested at 20 pilot high schools around the state. But in Michigan, some critics consider the new portal not only a missed opportunity, but also a million-dollar mistake.

"One might wonder why the state is giving money to a Boston-based developer, especially when the point of the Web site is to keep students -- and jobs -- in Michigan," said an opinion piece on Michigan State University's news site. "In a state that has to watch every penny it dishes out, investing millions into what amounts to a Michigan-themed Facebook is a risky line on the budget."

But an innovative approach with some risk might be necessary, as the nation is in the "throes of a persistent high school dropout crisis," according to a report by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston and the Alternative Schools Network in Chicago. The report states that, in 2007, nearly 6.2 million U.S. students between the ages of 16 and 24 dropped out of high school. As the nation continues to stagger in the global innovation race, state and local governments have had to find ways to keep kids on the right college and career track.

An Online Transitioning Tool

These Web-based, one-stop shops give students and parents access to tools they need to plan, apply and pay for college. Students can interact with guidance counselors and college recruiters. These portals also provide identity protection so schools can upload transcripts, test scores and letters of recommendation.

Through algorithms, students can make smart financial decisions and map out career paths based on their grades and real-time public-sector data, Powell said. For example, a ninth-grader might use the information to determine how many jobs will be available in a given field once he graduates; or a medical school-bound student who fails organic chemistry can have access to employers that she didn't know existed.

"There's a lot more depth to the connectivity and the guidance," said Powell, adding that building a portal can take between 60 days and six months.

In Massachusetts, schools would pay for access to such education resources. But now that the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority (MEFA) purchased a new solution from ConnectEDU last year, schools will be able to use the portal free of charge.

But it's still early in the rollout to determine results. At one of the pilot schools, Monson High School in Monson, Mass., only two students have tried it so far, said Bob Bardwell, a counselor at Monson and secondary-level vice president of the American School Counselor Association (ASCA).

"We actually haven't had many students on it yet because it hasn't been as functional as we wanted it to be," he said. "Our plan is to unveil it with more juniors this coming spring. We have high hopes that it'll

Russell Nichols  |  Staff Writer