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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.

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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
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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.

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Photo of David Thompson
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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!

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