News


A new kind of college prep program

Stanford couple aims to make students emotionally ready for college

Drew Krafcik and Amy Larimer are co-founders of Gradiant, a program designed to help high school students with the transition to college. The two resident fellows at Stanford University have located their company in Palo Alto and will be working with their first cohort of high school seniors in the new year. Photo by Veronica Weber.

After 20 years of watching a growing tidal wave of stress and pressure loom over high school and college students, two Stanford University resident fellows have decided to do something about it.

Drew Krafcik and Amy Larimer, a husband-and-wife team with experience in counseling, psychology and teaching, have launched a new kind of college prep program aiming to ready high schoolers emotionally and in their mental health rather than academically.

The five-month program, called Gradiant (merging the word "gradient" with "radiant"), aims to give second-semester high school seniors a space to explore questions both banal and deep-reaching, from how to choose a major to learning to be vulnerable, before they embark on one of the biggest transitions of their lives. The co-founders hope that helping teenagers develop a stronger sense of self earlier will set them on a healthier and happier path through college and beyond.

The launch of Gradiant coincides with unprecedented levels of depression and anxiety on college campuses, including at Stanford. In a 2017 American College Health Association survey, nearly 40 percent of college students said they had felt so depressed in the last year that it was difficult for them to function and 61 percent of students reported feeling "overwhelming anxiety" in the same period.

"I think people throw around words like this, but in our experience it's very real β€” the epidemic of loneliness, of sadness, of anxiety, of overwhelming stress, of perfectionism," Krafcik said in an interview in Gradiant's Palo Alto office. "People build an accidental fake life based on this inertia of who they think they should become.

"When we think about the transition to college this whole program is about, what if we back that up and you started to think about who you've been, who you are and who you want to become, and start to talk about your hurts, your pains for real?"

The Gradiant program is ambitious β€” and has a cost to match. Five months of group meetings, one-on-one time, mentoring, parent education and other services cost $19,000 per student, which can be paid monthly. They are offering two full scholarships for the first cohort of students starting in January and hope to expand that in the future.

"Our belief is that Gradiant offers skills for a lifetime invested in and valued now that reduce student's suffering and amplify their well-being," Krafcik said.

For the couple, Gradiant feels like a natural extension of their professional experiences. For the last three years, they have worked with Stanford freshmen as resident fellows in a dorm. Larimer is also the assistant director of Stanford's architecture program, taught high school students in a university summer-school program and is the co-founder of her own design firm Larimer + Bernheim. Krafcik has worked as a therapist, counselor, the director of spiritual care for a hospice program and was an assistant professor and interim director of the Marriage and Family Therapy program at Saint Mary's College of California. Together at Stanford, they teach a course on love and relationships.

For years, they've been developing a curriculum that advocates for a more holistic approach to education, drawing on their professional experience and research.

"So often responses to mental health become incredibly siloed, like 'Take this wellness class' or 'Go meet with this therapist,'" Larimer said. "We wanted to create a program that was integrative, where all of those needs could be addressed and met in one place, and (in) enough time that it can be practiced and learned and habituated and become a culture of impact rather than a one-off."

At Gradiant, 12 to 14 students will participate in two-hour weekly group meetings with Krafcik and Larimer during which they can talk about whatever's on their mind, while the co-founders weave in practical skill-building. Apprehension about making friends, for example, could offer an opportunity to talk about facing fears with realism or how to form meaningful relationships.

Once a week for an hour and a half, the students will spend time in smaller groups with a Gradiant mentor, who is a current Stanford student or recent graduate. The students can choose how to spend this time, whether it's going out to coffee, exploring the Stanford campus or hanging out at Gradiant's airy space, filled with plants, books and comfortable couches. The students also get an hour a week to text, FaceTime or otherwise communicate remotely one-on-one with their mentor.

Every month, parents will come in for their own two-hour group meeting. Krafcik and Larimer hired two family therapists to oversee parent development. The co-founders intend to have a flow of communication between the parents and students, so issues either group is talking about (Parents: How should I communicate with my child when they go to college? Students: How do I not want my parent to communicate with me when I go to college?) can be explored with the other.

"There's so much emphasis in high school on academic preparation and that is valued so deeply," Larimer said. "What about everything else?"

This resonates with Meghana Rao, a Gradiant mentor pursuing a master's degree in statistics at Stanford. She met Krafcik and Larimer while working as a resident assistant in the same dorm where they are resident fellows. In high school, she felt like she was "checking boxes and feeling academic pressure" and was "not as full of a person as I wanted to be."

Similarly, her freshman year at Stanford was "a year of just following what everyone's doing. If everyone in my dorm was staying up until 4 a.m., I'm going to be up until 4 a.m.," she said. "It was only later that I realized that I can advocate for myself, I can think about what I want and I can make meaningful relationships in the way I want to."

The co-founders specifically structured Gradiant mostly through groups to mirror real-life college experiences and to give the students immediate practice in making friends and forming healthy relationships. Krafcik and Larimer intend to be responsive and flexible with each group, so no two cohorts will feel the same.

And while they expect to discuss issues like anxiety and depression, they don't intend Gradiant to be a replacement for mental health treatment. If any student's psychological needs exceed their capabilities, they will help refer them to an appropriate resource, Krafcik said.

When talking about their program, Krafcik and Larimer effuse sincere optimism and passion for their work. They're admittedly uncomfortable about the cost of the program but said want to do their part, at this starting point, to address mental health crises on college campuses.

"The need is explicit and it's not going anywhere β€” and it's not being addressed seemingly in ways that are effective," Larimer said. "We're deeply committed in all spaces of our life on multiple levels to attempt to work systemically to begin to address them from an embodied place."

Gradiant is accepting applications for its January cohort. More information and the application instructions are posted at gradiantlife.com.

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Comments

13 people like this
Posted by Sally
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 2, 2018 at 2:28 pm

Thank you for launching this interesting project! It breaks my heart that so many of our "well prepared" prep students go away to college only to fall apart. Sometimes their bumps get smoothed after a rough semester... sadly, all too often, the collateral damage of "learning the hard way" is devastating and impactful well beyond the short term.

College prep that focuses on who our young adults are, who they want to become, and the huge social and emotional challenges they are about to face... what a crazy idea!


88 people like this
Posted by The Practical Mind
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 2, 2018 at 2:39 pm

$19,000.00 (or $4,000.00/month) just to (as per the PA Weekly article)...

>going out to coffee, exploring the Stanford campus or hanging out at Gradiant's airy space, filled with plants, books and comfortable couches. The students also get an hour a week to text, FaceTime or otherwise communicate remotely one-on-one with their mentor.

Sounds like a lot of overpriced hooey. I'll run this one by my child/sophomore with the option of either taking the course or receiving $19K in CASH. Guess which option will win?

>>...to learning to be vulnerable,

Why would anyone want to learn to be vulnerable? That's where most problems start.


8 people like this
Posted by J
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 2, 2018 at 2:57 pm

From the website it looks like a LOT of contact hours. Is there a version with a less intense dosage, and proportionately reduced cost

This does sound like exactly the kind of things kids need. @Practical, why don't you offer your kid the full cost of their college in cash when they're 17 and see what happens. I'm sure they'll have a great first five years.


82 people like this
Posted by PA Voter
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 2, 2018 at 5:16 pm

Just more coddling and potential wasted dollars. Easy work (and money) for the so-called 'coordinators' of this program.

Fast-buck entrepreneurism at its best in Palo Alto.

Why do kids today have to be pampered just to go to college? You either go or get a job...or join the service.


7 people like this
Posted by Facts and Figures
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 2, 2018 at 9:20 pm

Facts and Figures is a registered user.

If this really is great, why not transform living skills, a class not required by the State of California and only required by this District, into a FREE program like this for everyone.


10 people like this
Posted by Experienced Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 2, 2018 at 10:50 pm

Stanford students are often unprepared because it takes so much to be offered admission to Stanford. Their lives are dictated by their parents so the offer of admission doesn't really feel like an accomplishment; they are burnt-out and have missed out on beneficial social interactions, decision-making, developing independence on their own, the teen years. Same goes for admission to those Ivy League schools. Some students are fine because they are naturals so it's less of a reach, but others have to work so hard that they are actually out of their league. And especially if the high school is college prep, they are competing in AP classes and the stress is high. This is high priced therapy, but if parents push their children so hard, they reap what they sow. Is it worth it? Not every Stanford or Ivy League alum is successful.


47 people like this
Posted by R.Davis
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 3, 2018 at 9:17 am

R.Davis is a registered user.

QUOTE: Sounds like a lot of overpriced hooey.
QUOTE: Fast-buck entrepreneurism at its best in Palo Alto.
QUOTE: This is high priced therapy...

^^^^^ $19,000.00 (or $4000.00/month) does seem kind of expensive for a dubious college preparatory program that guarantees nothing in return.

Sounds more like a 'hand-holding' session promoting 'feel-good' vibes...couldn't this objective be accomplished in other ways & sans the price tag?


13 people like this
Posted by Explore life
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 3, 2018 at 9:26 am

Sounds like Stanford and other top schools should accept more well rounded students who will thrive in academic and social settings. If this were to happen, parents would adjust their parenting and expose their children to a variety of social experiences. College would be put in context and not be such a big deal as a result.


4 people like this
Posted by jenn
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 3, 2018 at 11:55 am

Cost of UCSF: $5283/month (based on 9 month academic year)
Cost of Toyota Honda: $4,893/month (based on 5 month payback schedule)
Cost of 1 Venti Starbucks Caramel macchiato/day: $153.45/month

These are all costs typically associated with "being valuable members of society", "working" and "achievement". And we typically don't even bat an eye at them. Or, if we do, we, we still pay because their societally justifiable and valued.

However, when considering paying $3,800 for a service that focuses on the mental health of individuals, specifically those at a very pivotal point in their lives, we scoff, or call it "hooey".

Why is that? Is it the cost, or is it that we currently don't value mental health in the same way as being able to excel academically or professionally (regardless of how we're feeling)?

What if this program would be free? Would it still be considered "nonsense"? Would it be valued?

Personally, I applaud this couple's determination to truly help drive conversation around mental health and wellbeing, and hope to see this program succeed.


48 people like this
Posted by Not Buying It
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 3, 2018 at 1:50 pm

> Is it the cost, or is it that we currently don't value mental health in the same way as being able to excel academically or professionally (regardless of how we're feeling)?

Stress stemming from school, the workplace, various social surroundings or personal concerns/problems cannot be equated to or easily defined as a mental illness issue. Everyone undergoes stress throughout the course of their everyday lives. While some individuals handle it better than others, one hopefully learns to deal with it...on their own.

An overindulgence in pseudo psychology and extensive babying only creates weak individuals who never learn to stand on their own two feet without having to turn to a plethora of 'professional advisers' just to get through the day. This can be a costly exercise and easily avoided as most psychology amounts to common sense.

Psychology is not a verifiable science...just a bunch of unanswered questions to the unanswerable at best.

Hooey is an expensive commodity for those are unable to think for themselves.


10 people like this
Posted by Tween-Teen Help
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 5, 2018 at 10:05 am

It's great that this couple has put a lot of time and effort into developing a program for teenagers that will help them transition to college and adult life. People have mentioned the cost, and it does seem high, and programs to help tweens and teens should be more financially accessible to many families. One issue with the program profiled above has to do timing: why so late in the game, the last year of high school? It seems that teens would benefit more by starting earlier, perhaps even during the tween years.

One suggestion for families who can't afford the $19,000 price tag, and who would be interested in helping their children develop recognition of mental health issues and coping skills to manage anxiety, in particular, is to look into therapy and clinics via their family insurance. (E.g. the insurance plan with the large hospital complex in Redwood City.) It would be much cheaper, perhaps a $30 copay for a therapist and a $15 copay for a tween-teen group class focusing on anxiety and depression. It's an adjustment for most kids to join a group therapy class, but, if they stick it out, they will 1) learn to recognize the various symptoms of anxiety and/or panic attacks that they and their parents might have never recognized before, 2) recognize that they, and their families, are not alone in the struggle with mental health issues, 3) learn coping strategies, ranging from breathing exercises to the recognition of the importance of time management, that could help them during the years from middle school through college.

The teen groups have a separate group for parents, if they're interested, and it helps to get the whole family learning to recognize symptoms and coping strategies. The groups meet weekly for about two months. It is a good amount of time, without being too long, to become educated about mental-health issues, to pick up skills, and to decide whether you want to continue on down that path or if, having put in the time and focus on developing better mental health and life skills, you are good to go.


15 people like this
Posted by Not Buying It Part II
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 5, 2018 at 1:29 pm

> It's great that this couple has put a lot of time and effort into developing a program for teenagers that will help them transition to college and adult life.

The excessive cost factor is more indicative of a money-making enterprise targeting the affluent (i.e. the Palo Alto community).

A program such as this could easily be administered via the public high schools...something along the lines of an 'Introduction to College' course taught by guidance counselors.


2 people like this
Posted by Tween-Teen Help
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 5, 2018 at 2:06 pm

@Not Buying,

High price tag or not, the couple profiled above has put thought and effort into developing their program. For those who can afford it, though many cannot, the program seems promising.

It's questionable whether similar programs could "easily be administered via the public high schools." It's debatable whether the guidance counselors would be qualified; a more clinical setting seems preferable. And what might be the role of the teachers' union watering things down? If people in this community are critical of PAUSD teachers being qualified (e.g. recent articles about the computer science teacher at Paly), how can we be sure that guidance counselors, who seem to have their hands full as it is, would be well positioned to deliver a mental health and well-being program?




5 people like this
Posted by Paul Losch
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 5, 2018 at 2:31 pm

The target for this cohort should be high school juniors, not high school seniors. Self discovery, to the extent that it exists in high school age students, should help them figure out what colleges to apply to. Once someone is admitted and committed, the game is already along, for good or bad outcomes.

We paid for our kids to take SAT prep, and did many college visits. It cost a fraction of what these folks appear to be charging, even for a few rarefied members of Palo Alto


19 people like this
Posted by Not Buying It Part III
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 5, 2018 at 2:38 pm

> High price tag or not, the couple profiled above has put thought and effort into developing their program.

I suspect more thought & effort on the revenue-generating possibilities.

>> how can we be sure that guidance counselors, who seem to have their hands full as it is, would be well positioned to deliver a mental health and well-being program?

Perhaps this is more of a PAUSD issue/exploration. They always seem to have the available resources for wasting on other things.


4 people like this
Posted by Tween-Teen Help
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 5, 2018 at 3:24 pm

@Not Buying,

Many people probably share your cynicism--not blind to the accusations and suspicions you have about the profiled couple. You don't have to "buy" their program, and neither does anyone else. There are other, affordable alternatives that are beneficial (see above). Still, the couple must surely have thought about how to help teenagers work through difficulty, and their program might appeal to and help certain families who can afford, and don't mind, the high sticker price. If a family chooses this couple's program, it's mostly likely not because they've been tricked into doing so. We don't have to get angry about anyone being duped here. This is not a buyer beware scenario. Those who choose Gradiant want a more "boutique" approach like that, and we should not begrudge their efforts to help their children even if we all can't afford the same. In the end, expensive or affordable, it comes down to helping kids.


27 people like this
Posted by High-Priced Hooey
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 5, 2018 at 5:56 pm

If kids want to drink coffee, hang-out on the sofa and take a few side trips to Stanford I can arrange that for far less...say maybe $10.00/per visit.

I've got a furnished atrium, a Kuerig coffee maker and an expresso machine + I'd be more than willing to load them up in my Dodge Caravan and drop them off at Stanford for the afternoon.

And if they want to sit and talk a spell, I can arrange that too.


20 people like this
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 5, 2018 at 7:35 pm

I tell you, there is nothing more consistently funny than how grifters separate rich people from their money while the rich people thank them. You just don't often get to see it written up in the paper this nicely.


10 people like this
Posted by The Master Plan
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 6, 2018 at 6:00 pm

>>>there is nothing more consistently funny than how grifters separate rich people from their money while the rich people thank them.

Yes. If one cannot identify a real problem, you create one (or at least a figment) and then market/sell various solutions to it...while going over brochures for a trip to Tahiti or a new Mercedes.


5 people like this
Posted by Over-priced
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 8, 2018 at 4:44 pm

If you really want to help students, you would not be charging $19000 for your program. This is an example of another boutique program which will be available to only those who have the means to pay. Offering 2 scholarships may help the founders justify this cost, but does not win me over.


2 people like this
Posted by this problem can be solved by the colleges and universities
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 8, 2018 at 4:44 pm

this problem can be solved by the colleges and universities is a registered user.

The problem is not our high schools. The problem is the college application process that the colleges and universities (like STANFORD) and the College Board have turned into an ugly rat race for their own advantage and profit. Shame on them.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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