Dunce wears a different hat than your average college planning consulting firm.
“I wanted to work with quirky students, ones that are maybe not good in the classroom but gifted otherwise,” says Alexandra Ellison, founder and chief dunce at the year-old Reno startup. “My job is to sit down with these kids and talk about all their options. Sometimes I’m the first person who shows them there are multiple paths.”
Ellison works with high school students preparing for college, helping them build a list of schools, survive tests like the SATs and navigate the admission process, called enrollment management in the lingo of the consulting business.
It’s a business that has exploded over the last decade, says Ellison.
“When college got more expensive, families started hiring college planning consultants like they would hire a Realtor to help them find a house,” she says.
But many services, says Ellison, focus on the high-achieving, 4.0-grade-average-type student.
“I wanted to work with students who I felt weren’t being addressed,” she says.
Ellison, who has a certificate in college counseling from University of California, Los Angeles and is working on her masters degree in public administration and policy at the University of Nevada, Reno, tries to make it enlightening for the kids she advises by giving tours of local businesses such as Hatch, a video production studio, and bringing them into the Reno Collective, where the company is located, to conduct counseling and classes.
She also works with partners. Trey Sells of Sells School, a former fellow Douglas High School classmate, provides tutoring for tests including the SATs, ACTs and AP subjects. Reno’s Fit Learning provides monthly student assessments at Dunce’s office in the Collective. And Dunce will soon be offering You Science testing, assessments of all kinds of skills, from sequential reasoning skills to hand-eye coordination, to help students discover what they are best suited to do.
So far, Dunce’s services have grown through word of mouth. Ellison started with eight clients and now has 50, half from Truckee and the remainder in Reno and Carson City and even a few outside of the area whom she counsels via Skype.
And Ellison wears the Dunce cap with pride, saying the name was chosen to show that the metaphorical symbol is not a sign a failure and should be “worn with gusto.”
“My lawyer asked me if I was crazy,” says Ellison. “That’s my mantra about why I named it Dunce.”