Photo by Pamela Wood/The Baltimore Banner -- Maryland candidate for governor Wes Moore speaks at a campaign event in Bowie on April 29, 2022.

In 2014, Wes Moore took aim at one of higher education’s most persistent problems by starting a company to help ill-prepared high school graduates stay, and succeed, in college.

As Moore runs in a crowded Democratic primary for governor, he points to BridgeEdU as an example of his track record in solving difficult problems.

But five years after he started the company, with at least $3.1 million in seed money from foundations and $350,000 in state money, BridgeEdU was sold for its data and shut down. It had served at least 672 students, and changed its approach several times to find new clients as colleges and universities deemed it ineffective, too costly or duplicative of existing services.

In Moore’s career, which has spanned investment banking, military service and nonprofit management across multiple countries, BridgeEdU represents a high-profile effort to help people in Baltimore.

On his campaign website, Moore said he “built and launched a Baltimore-based business called BridgeEdU which reinvents freshman year of college for underserved students to increase their likelihood of long term success.” The full picture is much more complicated: The company was sold and the college programs discontinued. While BridgeEdu benefitted some students, the company ultimately proved financially unsustainable and short-lived.

Still, Moore describes the company as a triumph.

“We were helping first-generation students, helping them make it to and through school and working with them to address a lot of the other issues that a lot of these students were facing,” Moore said recently when asked about BridgEdu at a campaign event. “So I would very much consider it a success.”

Moore declined a request for an interview about the company, and in response to a list of detailed questions, Moore’s campaign provided a general statement touting BridgeEdU.

BridgeEdU was created to help students who were hoping to start college but were unprepared for college-level classes. Often, those students are required to take remedial courses in math, English, or both, for no credit — but at the cost of college tuition. Research shows that students who require remedial classes are less likely to graduate than students who arrive prepared for college-level work. The classes are costly, extend the time required to finish a degree and can be demoralizing for students.

Nationally, 65% of students entering two-year colleges took at least one remedial class, according to a 2020 National Center for Education Statistics study. About 72% of Maryland community college students must enroll in remedial courses, according to the Maryland Higher Education Commission.

BridgeEdU worked with students at the University of Baltimore, Coppin State University, the Community College of Baltimore County and Baltimore City Community College, all institutions where students have low rates of completion. About a third of Coppin students and 41% of University of Baltimore students graduate within six years. At both Baltimore City Community College and Community College of Baltimore County, fewer than one in three students earned their degree within six years at the time the company was operating.

BridgeEdU was designed to provide an array of services — from academic support, to internships and counseling. The company also shepherded students through the financial aid process.

Former BridgeEdU students who spoke with The Baltimore Banner said the program gave them a support system in their crucial first year that propelled them toward graduation.

But schools that hired BridgeEdU say the program never proved its worth. University and college officials say the data on how many BridgeEdU students successfully completed the first year of college or graduated was collected by the company.

“The program was well intentioned, with a true desire to help students succeed, but the results didn’t warrant the continuation of the program,” Hope Hall Davis, director of media relations at the Community College of Baltimore County, said in an email. CCBC worked with the company for four years.

When Ron Kipling Williams taught a two-month remedial class in the summer of 2015 at UB designed to strengthen the academic skills of BridgeEdU students, he said he realized he would never be able to make up in a short course the skills students should have learned in 12 years. The best he could hope for was to give them a sense of what college would demand.

“I think there was heightened awareness of the rigor and there was an improvement in what they were doing,” said Williams, a poet and adjunct professor at UB and Stevenson University.

Tiphane Waddell, director of BridgeEdU’s coaching program, said the company did have a positive impact, and she points to two students — Codi L. Chavis and John Burton — she has kept in touch with as success stories.

“I think we changed some students’ lives. They did some things that they didn’t know they could. They weren’t sure that college was for them,” she said, “Many of them didn’t know how to navigate college at all.”

The company provided students with one-on-one coaching, said Waddell, and developed a system to monitor student attendance and communicate via texts. She said coaches established close relationships with students that helped them navigate the early days of college.

Chavis, now 26, was in BridgeEdU’s first class and said the organization helped her focus, connected her with internships, and provided her with a tight-knit group of 18 students who went through their first year at UB.

Chavis earned her degree, is working at Morgan Stanley and hopes to start her own business.

Burton, 24, said he was at the bottom of his high school graduating class at Benjamin Franklin High School in South Baltimore before a guidance counselor directed him to BridgeEdU’s 2015 class.

“From my perspective it was life-changing. I was one of the students who didn’t know what to do,” he said. He plans to graduate from Coppin State University this winter. Moore used contacts to help Burton get a job at Seawall Development, a prominent developer in Baltimore.

For the first couple of years, the company recruited students from city high schools, enrolled them at CCBC and had them take classes on the UB campus, where they had access to the library and other amenities that gave them exposure to a four-year institution.

Then UB decided to adopt another alternative.

“It was halted after the 2015-2016 academic year because it wasn’t garnering the anticipated results,” said Davis.

Tisha Edwards, a former interim CEO of Baltimore City Schools, took over leadership of the company in 2017 from Moore, just as he was named as the new head of the Robin Hood Foundation, a New York City-based nonprofit organization. Edwards is now chief of staff for Moore’s gubernatorial campaign.

After UB ended its program, BridgeEdU moved to Coppin State University in 2016, where it ran two different programs: One enrolled CCBC students in remedial courses that took place on Coppin’s campus, and the other coached Coppin freshmen.

Over the course of two academic years, 88 students participated in the CCBC-Coppin program and 129 participated in the Coppin program, for a total of 217 students. Moore’s campaign reports list a student enrollment that’s 25% higher, but that figure includes some students who repeated the coaching program for a second year.

Both programs were halted in 2018.

“The university’s involvement with BridgeEdU was discontinued once it became clear that the pilot duplicated existing support services already available” to students, according to a statement from Coppin.

In 2018, BridgeEdU saw another opportunity when then-Mayor Catherine Pugh announced that the city would provide community college free to any public high school graduate. Students participating in Pugh’s “Mayor’s Scholars Program” were required to attend a summer preparation program, and those students would be paid through Youth Works.

BridgeEdU and Baltimore City Community College designed the summer program, which helped students understand the challenges they would face in college and counseled them after their classes. BridgeEdU officials say 387 students enrolled in the summer program; 335 students completed at least one summer class, according to Cristina Lopez, who was a special assistant to BCCC’s president.

“Without BridgeEdu we would have not been able to launch the Mayor’s Scholars Program as successfully as we did,” she said.The company provided expertise about high school graduates that the community college — whose average student was a working adult in their late 20s — did not have.

In addition to receiving money from the participating colleges and universities, BridgeEdU received $3.1 million in private and foundation investments, the company has reported. Though BridgeEdU never detailed all of its investors, the Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis organization that funds education initiatives, gave $750,000, according to its website. Strada Education Network, another foundation, said it gave an undisclosed amount.

In June 2019, Moore sold BridgeEdU for an undisclosed amount to a private company, Edquity. In the press release announcing the sale, the company touted “an average increase of 20 percent in first-year retention,” but the Moore campaign declined to provide details about how that figure was calculated.

“I am proud of the innovative company that we built to help nearly 800 students — some of the most underserved students in our community — enter and thrive in college,” Moore said in a statement this week.

Edquity’s CEO, David Helene, put Moore on its board, but he said the BridgeEdU program itself wasn’t worth continuing.

“The outcomes the organization were driving were tremendous and effective,” Helene said. But he added that colleges are “wildly underinvested” and did not have the money to pay for a labor-intensive program like BridgeEdU.

What Helene and Edquity did find valuable was the trove of data that BridgeEdU had collected on its students and the success rates of different intervention and coaching strategies the ompany had tried.

The terms of the sale of BridgeEdU to Edquity were not disclosed. Edquity’s main business operation is running emergency financial aid programs for colleges and universities, and it has branched out into government aid programs as well, including a contract with Baltimore to run a city program that helps people pay their water bills.

Even after BridgeEdU was sold to Edquity, Moore continued to tout its benefits.

In late 2019, he wrote a column about Baltimore, with half of it focused on BridgeEdU. “When I came back home, I founded an organization … that helped students navigate their first and second year of college,” Moore wrote.

The column featured a student who Moore wrote “is well on her way” to college graduation.

He didn’t mention the program’s closure months earlier.