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College Built For Non-Traditional Students [Final Update - 2.27.17]

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

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The Problem

45 million American adults have some college and no degree. 

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.

The obstacles are real: students without a degree struggle to earn a livable wage, change careers, get a promotion into management, or 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.

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?

Enter Pelotonu

Few people are tackling this problem for nontraditional students, but working adults need flexibility and support in a college pathway.

We've seen that an effective solution is to blend competency-based online education with personalized, in-person support to consistently graduate students without insurmountable debt.

Why Competency-Based Online Education? 

We send students only to schools that are competency-based, regionally-accredited, non-profit, and online. Here's why: 

  • They are the most flexible option for folks who have to work full-time to pay their bills - students can work on school when they're able. 
  • Students can earn workforce-aligned credentials
  • They afford students a faster way to earn their degree
  • Degrees are much more affordable - a year at College for America costs $3000 for unlimited credits. 

Why In-Person Support? 

The key to success is community and student support— something two-year institutions currently struggle with. Returning adults have already failed once at college and often believe that they can’t be successful.

  • Students need individualized support— someone to cheer them on and help navigate the complexities of school and work
  • Students need consistent accountability - they need someone checking on their progress and helping them get back on track when they fall behind.
  • Students need community to show them what's possible, offer and receive help, and support them. 

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. UPDATE FEB 27, 2017 - Currently, 6 students are set to start college on 3/1/17!

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 student 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.

Working adults - like the 45 million American adults who have some college and no degree- want a degree but have 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 17 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!


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