49: A Startup Betting on Human Intelligence: Rachel Carlson, CEO, Guild Education

Rachel Carlson's company, Guild Education, helps companies offer education as a benefit to employees.

Rachel Carlson's company, Guild Education, helps companies offer education as a benefit to employees.

In case you haven't noticed, there are some big challenges facing the American worker. Unless you're in the top 20 percent salary-wise, if you've kept the same job, chances are you haven't gotten a big raise in the last decade or two. 

The answer? There are arguments about whether a higher minimum wage would be a good fix, or a dramatic shift in tax policy. Rachel Carlson has a different idea. 

Carlson is the co-founder and CEO of Guild Education, a startup that helps companies like Taco Bell to offer college tuition assistance as a benefit to their employees. Carlson has a unique blend of experiences – working in government, starting companies in Silicon Valley, and going to school on the other side of the tracks as a kid – that give her an intriguing perspective. 

What About Education?

As Ray Dalio pointed out on LinkedIn this week, an enormous gap opened up between the wealthy and the rest of America, beginning in the 1980s. The picture for workers who don't have four-year college degrees is especially bleak.

Carlson at Guild Education is trying to make it easier for workers to go back to school with help from their companies. It's a win-win-win: Workers get help with their tuition, employers get better retention of their best workers, and colleges get access to a pipeline of promising students.

Community Colleges Are Getting Crushed

That pipeline is hard to come by otherwise. Carlson found that in 2014, the top U.S. buyers of Google ads were for-profit universities.

"They were spending $4,000 - $6,000 to acquire a student," she says. "What happens is, when the for-profits are spending that much, strong non-profit universities can't keep up to recruit the students they want."

And once a non-profit college spends the money to recruit a student but loses to a for-profit competitor, the money's gone. They don't get it back.

Working Students Work Better

One of the reasons Guild Education's offer is tantalizing for schools: It turns out that if an adult student is working, she or he tends to be a better student. It makes sense, if you think about it. She's already actively trying to improve her situation.

So what policies could amplify this effect, and get companies to invest more in helping their best employees get a degree? How did Carlson start Guild Education? And what in her past put her on the path to tackling this knotty problem? For that, enjoy the full Fortt Knox podcast episode.