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NextTier helps students, parents get through college applications

Two men with big-cred technology backgrounds have developed a free app and website to help high-schoolers and their parents complete today’s complicated college application process online and earn rewards at the same time.

They have raised $1.2 million in private and venture capital since March to take much of the arduous task-management steps out of the application process.

Jeff Allen, a Naperville software architect and technical director who designed the online gaming network for Microsoft’s Xbox Live, decided to tackle the problem after he was locked out of a system his daughter used with her high school guidance counselor to fill out college applications.

“I saw an opportunity to simplify an old-school, complicated process, to add parents and to add an element of gaming to help keep the kids engaged,” said Allen, 50.

Allen has partnered with co-founder Justin Shiffman, 29, of Highland Park, former CEO of and son of Tiger Electronics co-founder Roger Shiffman, to start NextTier Education. The startup, based at 55 E. Jackson in the Loop, employs six people full time.

The company’s initial rollout lets students get a checklist of “to-dos” with deadlines, sortable by priority, to complete the application process at nearly all of the country’s 2,363 four-year colleges and universities.

“Our software organizes the dates and tasks, and directs students to go first to the most difficult and time-consuming,” Allen said. He noted guidance counselors typically urge students to apply to as many as eight colleges at a time, including first-choice schools along with backups.

Next year, NextTier plans to expand the database to include the country’s three-year and community colleges.

NextTier’s uniqueness is that it lets the student set up a team to help them get through the process, including parents, siblings, friends and guidance counselors.

As the student finishes each task, he or she receives a digital badge — like getting a gold star or a trophy — and, starting in the spring, may earn points that can be redeemed at major retailers for such things as a discount or a gift card.

Shiffman said NextTier aims to make money by partnering with retailers who participate in the rewards marketplace.

Allen said the aim is to let students concentrate on their future careers instead of the process to get there.