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Blended Higher Ed - PelotonU [Updated Main Description and Attachments - 1/17/16]

We ensure working adults graduate on time and debt-free by blending competency-based, online universities with in-person support.

Photo of Hudson Baird
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Who is the target audience for your idea and how does it reimagine the cost of college?

Our target audience is two-tiered: 1) Non-traditional students who work full-time and want a college degree 2) Employers interested in retaining and developing their staff This re-imagines the cost of college by blending affordable competency-based online degrees with in-person academic coaching. Pell grants fund tuition, employers pay for student support, and local donors provide gap funding. Employers incentivize staff to stay with the company and earn an industry-aligned degree.

PelotonU is a social enterprise that provides working college students with a pathway to graduation that is affordable, flexible, and personalized to their long-term career goals. It tackles the problem of college completion for working adults by providing in-person mentorship and support for competency-based degree programs.

This is valuable for students because it provides a pathway that is affordable, flexible, and personalized to their long-term career goals. This is valuable for employers because it provides a low-cost retention and credentialing framework.

Here's the context. The American higher education system was designed for students who live near campus and graduate in four years, but now most college students are non-traditional.

This means most college students are older, work more than 20 hours, and struggle to attend full-time and keep their job. They face real challenges completing their education, and when they do, graduates average $29,000 in debt.

PelotonU was founded in 2012 to research and address this problem. We selected competency-based education (CBE) models because they are flexible, affordable, and workforce aligned. When blended with in-person accountability and support, CBE provides a better path to college graduation and ensures students have the support and community to graduate.

In our first year, we used a residential model where a college coach lived alongside students. After this proved ineffective, we moved to an office-based support model (quick history). Since then, all of our students have avoided college debt and they are persisting at five times the rate of their peers (82% compared to 16% in Central Texas, source: E3 Alliance).

Here's how that looks: [Updated 1/17/16]

  1. Students hear about PelotonU, usually from their employer
  2. We screen students on four key criteria (see Admissions attachment)
  3. Students begin provisional enrollment, a two month process to pick their long-term goal, map their academic path, enroll them in a university they select, and get them in the rhythms of prioritizing school
  4. Students enroll in college and are admitted to PelotonU. They spend 12 hours per week at our office, have weekly academic pace requirements, meet with their college coach every two weeks, and have on-demand tutoring and peer support as needed
  5. Students either (a) earn their Bachelor's with PelotonU, (b) transfer to a brick-and-mortar for a specific degree, or (c) finish the education needed for a career in their long-term industry.

Over the past year, PelotonU:

  • Grew 400% from 7 to 28 students
  • Graduated from the inaugural cohort of UnLtd USA, an Austin-based accelerator for social entrepreneurs
  • Hired a design researcher to study working adults and their motivations for college completion (findings attached, notes here)
  • Worked with a user experience design class from General Assembly to re-design student recruitment
  • Finalized a revenue model that will cover 80% of our expenses by 2018

This model addresses the unique needs of low-income families and first generation college students by providing a pay-what-you-can cost structure, personalized academic pathway, ongoing relational support from trained educators, and a flexible academic schedule. [Updated 1/17/16]

In 2016, PelotonU will enroll 90 students and prove the viability of a blended higher education model for working adults. Long-term, we intend to help non-profits and employers in other cities replicate this model for their community.

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

[Updated 1/17/16] In 2015, we tested our student support model, and built a 30:1 student to staff framework that is cost-effective and yielded 83% retention. In 2016, there are two assumptions we need to test: 1) When we grow to ninety students, will we see similar retention outcomes? 2) If we prove the model in Austin, will partners in other cities utilize our approach?

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

Are there non-profits, charter schools, or employers interested in providing a college pathway for working adults in your community? If so, we want to help you run a pilot. We can provide the software, university partnerships, revenue model, weekly rhythms, and ongoing coaching through the first year. Have you taken a model from single site to multi-city? If so, we'd love your input.

This idea emerged from

  • A group brainstorm

Are you interested in the Path to Pitching track we've developed for this challenge?

  • Yes

Evaluation results

26 evaluations so far

1. Does this idea make college more accessible, especially for low income students in the U.S.?

Yes! - 53.8%

To a degree - 38.5%

Not that I can tell - 7.7%

2. Does this idea think beyond current cost structures of college and activate new sectors or partners?

Yes! - 69.2%

It's attempting to - 26.9%

Not that I can tell - 3.8%

3. How excited are you about this idea?

I'm so excited I just can't hide it! - 61.5%

I'm pretty neutral in my excitement level - 26.9%

I don't feel very excited about this idea. - 11.5%

View more

Attachments (3)

PelotonU Admissions.pdf

This is the screening and admissions process for students.

PelotonU Customer Personas (GA Prepared).pdf

These personas were prepared in partnership with a General Assembly UX team.

PelotonU Prospective Student Research.pdf

We conducted design research in Q2 2015 to better understand prospective students and their barriers to a college degree.


Join the conversation:

Photo of David Thompson

As a former teacher and administrator exclusively in low-income communities, I'm excited to see more organizations like this who are working to close the higher ed gap for families in low-income communities. Accessibility and debt have always been huge barriers, and I think this model addresses both in a thoughtful and strategic way. I hope to see this model scaled to see if it can succeed with even more students. Good luck in this process!

Photo of Bettina Fliegel

Hi Hudson. 
Congratulations on your idea moving into refinement!  I like this idea as it removes barriers for people to get a degree.  What industries are you targeting?   Is your program strictly for working youth to grow skills that will benefit them within the industry they are currently employed in?  
What is provided to the students by your university partners, and what is provided by your social business?
Looking forward to learning more!

Photo of Hudson Baird

Bettina Fliegel Thanks for the congrats! Our current partnerships are in food service, healthcare, and municipal government. Long-term, we're learning the best employers have tuition reimbursement, internal pathways for promotion post-credential, and existing cultures of staff development. I think banking, and some service industries may also fit that profile.

Once we support a student, our relationship with them takes precedent to the employer. That's been complicated when they decide to change industries, and we're still working through the nuances of a candid, mutually-beneficial, and student-first support model. If our model existed elsewhere, I wonder if direct delivery from the employer might solve some of those hurdles.

The universities (our favorites are College for America and Western Governors University) provide curriculum, software, learning pathways, and a terminal credential. They also offer varying levels of support. We provide a space to study, community of peers, trained college coach, academic accountability, subject-specific tutoring, chromebooks, and referrals to social service providers as needed. Does that delineation make sense?

Photo of Bettina Fliegel

Hi Hudson.
Yes, your comment/delineation makes sense!  The project is much clearer now.   The updates on the post are also very helpful.  Some questions and thoughts.

What local businesses are "closing the gap" on tuition for the students?  How do you recruit them and what are the incentives for them to participate?  Are they contributing to a fund, or is funding on a case by case basis?

Your retention rate of 82% is awesome!  Do you have any information about the students that dropped out? What were the barriers to success?  (Is that the graduation rate?)

I would love to learn about the student cohort.  The structure and supports you have created I think are key for student success! How do  students manage with their full time work schedules and outside responsibilities?  Are students in your program working flexible jobs?  Do they have family responsibilities?

Thinking about scaling to other cities have you considered testing it within an organization that has locations in other cities/states as a way to bring the model to other communities?  (I googled top employers in Austin.  On the list - Seton Family of Hospitals is one.  They are part of Ascension Health which has other locations in the US.  According to their benefits they offer tuition assistance.      AT & T, also in Austin, lists educational benefits for employees as well.  (Just some examples.) 
(There are several tech companies in Austin.  Have you done outreach to them?)

Why do you favor the two colleges you mention?  What are the benefits they offer to students and your model?

I am excited for the students you are serving Hudson!   Looking forward to reading impact stories as the model develops!  Good luck building the program!

Photo of Hudson Baird

Bettina Fliegel Fantastic questions! So rarely do we get to this level of detail with the model, thanks for thinking with us about the nuances and opportunities. You’ve got some great suggestions. I’ve responded in-line below.

There’s lots of great employers in town providing support for their staff. Since we’re focused on Bachelor’s degree completion, not every company is a fit for our model. There are three incentives. First, tuition-reimbursement is an under-utilized benefit. We’re the only flexible college model in town. Second, as we coach through academic persistence, we address many of the same personal obstacles that interfere with success at work. Third, we focus on top performers within companies. We provide a pipeline for internal development of key staff. Thus far the funding relationships have been secondary. We encourage students to use existing tuition reimbursement options (which drives down our scholarship cost), but haven’t charged companies for support.

We have six students who haven’t finished. Four are still in college, and two plan to come back to PelotonU. One I still meet with twice a month. The biggest reason students drop out is pace. We require them to prioritize regular progress in school. If they start to struggle and decide not to ask for help, then we ask them to leave the program until they’re ready to come back and work hard on their studies.

The other thing to consider is we have a two month provisional enrollment. This is a trial period when we’re helping students plan their academic path, get up to speed in math or writing, and enroll in their starting university. It’s not until the end of this process that we track retention. So for our October 2015 cohort, 14 students started, 10 completed, and 4 did not. Those four are not reflected in our reported outcomes.

When students begin the program, we require them to spend 12 hours per week at our office. This is where we mentor, offer tutoring, and set weekly academic standards. The hope is students are studying at least 20 hours per week, but this baseline in an academic community helps them get back into the routine of school. As students make progress and demonstrate consistency, that requirements gets lifted.

Most of them work more than 30 hours per week in the service industry. Their shifts change each week, but rarely to their preferences. We help them fit school in the margins around the rest of the moving parts of their life. 29% of our students are parents, more are supporting an older family member.

We’ve thought lots about scale. For 2016, we want to focus on the Austin model and make sure we can deliver the same quality with 100 students that we’re finding with our first 30. As for growth, it makes the most sense within existing organizations, which could be an employer or non-profit. At the same time, culture is a big part of our support, and replicating that is tough. We’ve just started chatting to local tech companies, but think some of them (especially with call centers in Austin) are natural partners.

AT&T we haven’t chatted with yet, but are absolutely in our wheelhouse. Seton does great work in town, but we had some relationships with the other area hospital - St. David’s (which is HCA operated) - and are working on a pilot with one location before hopefully expanding across the city this Fall. Long-term, absolutely the play is to help large employers support the growth of this model to support their staff in other cities.

We only work with universities that are regionally-accredited, nonprofit (with an exception for a criminal justice degree), and competency-based. WGU and CFA are the best out there, and there’s more programs like them coming online in the next few years (including from the University of Texas).

WGU has been around awhile and is pretty well-recognized. They’re also treated like a Texas university, which is helpful when our students want to transfer to finish their degree. CFA is more affordable and has a much more student friendly learning management system. We’ve been surprised to find that software matters even more than curriculum for how students learn, and by extension, feel about their education (think Khan Academy compared to a textbook). Here’s a good summary of what we mean:

I know that’s a lot - does it help clear up some of your questions?

Photo of Bettina Fliegel

Hi!  I am enjoying the conversation!
I will reply fully later but just a suggestion as you clarify things in comments add that information to your post so others can see it.  I didn't reread your post yet - maybe you did already?

Photo of Alexandra Alden

Hey Hudson! Great work! Love that you have a design researcher on the team! Have you sized your market at all? 

Photo of Hudson Baird

@Alexandra Alden We have sized the market, a couple different ways.

1) Students with some college and no degree. These are students who had college-going intent but did not reach their goal. We believe many would re-enroll if the barrier to their prior participation - typically cost and time, was removed.
Nationally: 31 million Americans have some college and no degree

Locally: We know about 4,000 students drop out of college each year in Central Texas. If you consider 25% of students from 18 - 40, that puts the market close to 20,000 students.

2) Part-time community college students:
These are students still pursuing a degree, but who are not able to attend full-time. We believe many would take more classes if they were affordable and flexible.
Nationally: 4.6 million students are currently enrolled part-time

Locally: 41,627 students are enrolled in Austin Community College. 77% are part-time (32,053). 16% of those graduate. 26,925 of those currently enrolled will not.

Photo of OpenIDEO

We’re thrilled to have you in our Refinement phase, Hudson! We love that your idea is making college accessible to the growing population of nontraditional students, and incorporates both online and in person elements .

In the Refinement phase, we’d love to see you continue developing the viability, desirability and feasibility of your idea. The following are some feedback and provocations to consider. It looks like you’ve already formed powerful partnerships with design researchers, accelerators, online universities and organizations like General Assembly. What challenges and successes have you encountered while building these relationships and how might other ideas learn from your experiences? Have you thought about ambitions to expand your model to more traditional students entering four year universities?

Here are some key questions and milestones we encourage from all ideas in the Refinement:
1. How might this idea address the unique needs of low-income families and first generation college students?
2. Clearly summarize the value proposition of your idea in 1-2 sentences
3. Identify assumptions that need to be answered in order to validate your value proposition.
4. Collect feedback from potential partners and users to answer the assumptions you’ve identified.
5. Communicate your idea in a visual way with user experience maps

Lastly, here's a useful tip: When you update the content of your post, it'd be helpful to indicate this in your idea title by adding an extension. For example, you can add the extension " - Update: Experience Maps 12/22" to you idea title. This will be a good way to keep people informed about how your idea is progressing!

We’re excited to see this idea progress in the next weeks!

Photo of Hudson Baird

@OpenIDEO team - Thank you for the encouragement and feedback. We have had challenges building relationships with advisors and outside research teams. The biggest is bandwidth. We have a small staff, and can get lost in the short-term deadlines. Partnerships that don’t solve the problem of the week can feel tangential. Yet every time, they’ve helped us clarify our customer and improve our student support. That’s the win - we get better when we slow down to invite others to see our questions and offer new solutions.What might others learn? Mostly, that this work is too hard and too important to do alone. We’re fortunate in Austin to have a great eco-system of social entrepreneurs, funders, accelerators, and advisors. Once we started to look for friends and ask for help, the quality of support we provided our students improved significantly.

We don’t have current plans to expand our model to traditional students at four year universities. If they’re on campus, we’re optimistic the resources needed to graduate are accessible. It may be costly, but they can find them. We’re interested in the 6.5 million students currently enrolled part-time ( and the 31 million students with some credit and no degree ( These are the students least served by the current post-secondary pathways.

Photo of Karen Sorensen

Congrats, Hudson on making it to refinement! Congrats on your pilot. I really think you are on to something with the competency based education, with a P-20 model. My friend Iyinoluwa is the co-founder of Andela which is a company that is doing something very similar in Nigeria. They have been really successful and are getting ready to expand to other parts of Africa. They are providing technology training and then matching them with employers. Here is their link.  Good Luck-- K

Photo of Hudson Baird

Hey Karen Sorensen !

I've heard of Andela before, and really admire their work. I started my career in international development and love seeing employment opportunities in emerging economies. Computer science education, specifically rapid credentialing in sub-baccalaureate degrees, seems like a big part of where post-secondary education is headed.

We have some friends named Kepler in Rwanda working on a similar blended higher ed model (including in a refugee camp).

Appreciate the encouragement, send our best to the Andela team!

Photo of OpenIDEO

Congrats on making it to the Refinement Phase Hudson! In the next few days we'll be sending you additional feedback to help you take this idea forward - so be on the lookout for that. We're looking forward to how this idea will grow!

Photo of Hudson Baird

Thanks OpenIDEO - looking forward to seeing your feedback.

Photo of Wes Fang

Where do I go to learn more? I'd like to run a pilot.

Photo of Hudson Baird

We're running a pilot in Austin, Texas that you can learn more about here -

Happy to share what we have and help you get one up and running as well. 

Photo of Gavin Cosgrave

Love the idea! It looks like one of the biggest challenges for the generous tuition reimbursement programs is the busy schedules of employees. This is a great solution for workers who already have steady jobs, but would benefit from additional education.

Photo of Hudson Baird

Thanks Gavin, absolutely agree!

Photo of Maria Salamanca

Very good idea to focus on the non-traditional college students, a large population of low income individuals fall in this demographic due to struggling with work and other family obligations - can't wait to see what you come up with!

Photo of Hudson Baird

Absolutely agree Maria! 71% of students are non-traditional. They need more flexibility and more support (especially as they start), and for them a college degree can make the most immediate impact on their careers and families.

What was your college experience like?


Photo of Paul Hastings

Super awesome. I'm actually the product of a non-traditional college education myself. About 1/3 of my college credits were earned at a community college and the other 2/3 came from assessments and testing. I now have an accredited degree from a state college and have zero debt. I think my total college degree cost under $10k including books, courses, and tuition.

If I were the owner of a company and was presented with an opportunity like this, I would jump on it in a heartbeat!

Photo of Carolyn Urbis

This is a great idea. It addresses so many issues by creating time & space for older students trying to finish degrees, signaling interest & commitment to employers, and helping students afford education. Seems like a easy win for all.

Photo of Chris Ryan

This is a great idea, I would love to see it grow!