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College Built For Non-Traditional Students [Updated 2.17.17]

When high-quality online universities are combined with in-person coaching, non-traditional students will be able to earn their degree.

Photo of Sarah Saxton-Frump
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What if we designed a college program around the needs of non-traditional students instead of forcing their complex lives into a system that graduates only 16% of its part-time students?

With 95% of jobs created in the US since the recession going to folks with a college degree - and the expectation that 60% of all jobs in Texas will require the same by 2020 - the need for college graduates is urgent. Americans know their future is brighter with a college degree - so thousands enroll each year but end up dropping out, because college wasn’t built for them, even though they’re the students who benefit from a degree the most.

Increasingly, students without a degree, can’t earn a livable wage, change careers, get a promotion into management, or provide provide for their families.

Yet the answer isn’t as simple as just “going back to school” - the barriers they first faced have only become more imposing with time.

Historically in higher education, innovation has simply been layered on top of the existing system of credit-hour courses and semesters. Students who work, commute and attend part-time need a better pathway to their degree, but most programs just add services alongside this traditional structure rather than rethinking college for working adults.

Working adults need flexibility and support in a college pathway. We've seen that the solution is to blend competency-based online education with personalized, in-person support to consistently graduate students without insurmountable debt.

Competency-based, regionally-accredited, non-profit online degrees seem best suited for non-traditional students, because they are the most flexible option for folks who have to work full-time to pay their bills. Students can earn workforce-aligned credentials in half the time and at 20% of the cost on a schedule that work for them.

But the key to success is community  and student support— something two-year institutions particularly struggle with. Returning adults have already failed once at college and often believe that they can’t be successful. They need individualized support— someone to cheer them on, help navigate the complexities of school and work, and to help get back on track when they fall behind.

We built a program to fill those gaps and focus on three high-impact activities: meeting weekly with an advisor to analyze progress, setting weekly academic deadlines, and studying in the office with peers.

Who is your idea designed for and how does it reimagine higher education to support the needs of tomorrow?

We designed our idea for nontraditional students - folks who are older than 24, commute, or attend part-time - and they now comprise over half of college students in the United States. The numbers add up fast - 45 million Americans adults have some college credit but no degree (Census Bureau).

This reimagines higher education because non-traditional students are the norm for tomorrow’s colleges. We’re proposing a total overhaul of how college is structured, built for their needs.

This idea emerged from:

  • A group brainstorm

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

Here in Central Texas, we have a good understanding of the college barriers facing working adults and the industry verticals and aligned degrees where a college degree proves meaningful. What about elsewhere?

We'd also love advice on how to teach other people to build programs like ours for their community.

Why are students struggling to complete college where you live? Do working adults need a degree to find good jobs in your community? Who could run a pilot to trial this model elsewhere?

What early, lightweight experiment might you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

Since 2014 we have experimented with combining competency-based online college education with in-person support. On January 23, 9 students will begin an academic orientation to test whether this strategy of support proves effective for their academic goals and personal contexts.

If six students (67% conversion) are ready to start college March 1st, the experiment will prove effective.

Tell us about your work experience:

My passion for college completion has grown over my ten year career in education and leadership. First as a high school history teacher in Brownsville, Texas and then as a social studies teacher, team leader, manager, assistant principal and then principal at KIPP. Now, I hope to leverage the charter school approach - provide better options, prove the possible, and pressure traditional schools - to higher education so that anyone with the will and drive can earn a college degree.

How would you describe this idea while in an elevator with someone? 2-3 sentences.

Today’s college student has changed - she's now a non-traditional students older than 24, commuting to college, or attending part-time - but college hasn’t changed with her. These students need a new college pathway that's flexible and supportive so they can actually graduate. That's what PelotonU does - we blend the best of online education with the best of in-person support to make sure working adults can succeed.

What is the specific problem your idea is trying to solve? 1 sentence.

45 million American adults have some college and no degree, but no pathway that works for their complex lives.

How is your idea different or unique from what is currently on the market?

Many organizations work in college completion, but we differ in 3 key ways.
1. We serve working adults returning to college. They support students who enroll directly from high school.
2. We value flexibility and workplace-aligned degrees by working with high-quality online universities. They support students in traditional colleges.
3. Our model works in communities with limited access to college - all that’s needed is WiFi and a Chromebook. They depend on existing infrastructure.

How do you plan to measure the impact of your idea?

We measure impact in 2 ways: success for students at PelotonU, and support of new, like-minded partners nationwide.

We measure success by student persistence, completions and debt. Persistence is the percent of students who start college and stay until completion. Our 80% rate is five times the part-time average. We’ve seen 13 completions, and no PelotonU student has graduated with debt.

Nationally, we plan to launch 80 like-minded organizations serving 11,000 students within 5 years.

How might your idea be transferable to a large number of people?

To scale, we will launch 80 partners of a similar size and mission, but contextualized to their community.

To do this, we'll need 3 tools:
1. the process and standards to identify, screen and select partners to launch new locations
2. a training program to support the launch of new locations
3. an on-going support system and effectiveness measures to ensure each location is supporting college completion for their students.

What are your immediate next steps after the challenge?

We’ve proven our model in Austin, and will grow enrollment to sustain ongoing operations. Next, we’re focused on training new partners who will offer a similar pathway for their own communities. We’re building a consulting practice to teach partners - including non-profits, community colleges, and employers - how to weave online education and coaching into their communities, and would love help from the IDEO community!


Join the conversation:

Photo of Joel

Sarah, what a fantastic idea. I was wondering how you envision your growth strategy rolling out? What's the biggest inhibitor from rapid expansion?

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