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How to support low-income students in online programs

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A look at nonprofits that offer place-based support for lower-income students enrolled in online programs. Also, demand is strong for free short-term certificates at Ozark Tech and the College of Southern Nevada.


A Hybrid College Goes Virtual

The two biggest challenges facing any alternative to traditional college that’s aimed at working learners are: 

  • Will it actually attract students?
  • Does the model provide the sort of support lower-income students need to succeed?

Hybrid colleges are explicitly designed to address both issues. And the evolving approach of these 15 nonprofits is worth watching as more intermediaries try to bridge gaps between education and employment. 

The brick-and-mortar operations of AdvanceEDU, Duet, PelotonU, and other hybrid colleges are a “symbiosis between online higher ed institutions and nonprofits that provide place-based support systems,” Rebecca Koenig wrote last year for EdSurge.

Here’s how it has worked so far: Students pay tuition to attend online programs from Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, Colorado State University Global, and others, with a focus on competency-based degrees. The universities share tuition revenue with the hybrid colleges, which provide in-person coaching, career advising, childcare, and other supports.

“It was college meets co-working, for working adults from age 18 to their mid 60s,” says Hudson Baird, executive director of PelotonU, a hybrid college he co-founded a decade ago. “It’s a model I miss.”

The Austin-based PelotonU’s approach changed permanently because of the pandemic, say Baird and Sarah Saxton-Frump, the nonprofit’s co-founder and COO. Previously, PelotonU told students that the magic of the model was the flexibility of competency-based education embedded in a community of peers.

“What we didn’t realize was that requiring attendance at a space, even when that can change each week, is also prohibitive to all sorts of students—those without transportation or who live further away or who have caregiving responsibilities,” the two co-founders say.

(Click over to Work Shift to read the full exchange with Baird and Saxton-Frump.)

Besides realizing that PelotonU needed to offer more flexibility, the nonprofit also has acknowledged that students mostly come to the campus to meet with their coach, not to study. So it changed course:

“The pandemic forced a migration to fully virtual support, and we found that the trusted coaching relationship was the key ingredient—not community. We still believe in, and operate, a physical location (that’s now more like a drop-in library) and are also learning that a fully virtual model can serve students in more places while creating a trusted relationship between coach and student.”

View from Colorado: AdvanceEDU also has experienced shifts during the last couple years, says Lauren Trent, CEO of the Denver-based campus, which has a goal of enrolling 10K students over a decade.

For one thing, Trent says the field is moving away from the term “hybrid college” to better describe what they do, which doesn’t include issuing degrees. While Trent and others in the Hybrid College Network haven’t landed on new nomenclature yet, she refers to AdvanceEDU as a hybrid college support organization.

The pandemic amplified the variable pacing needs of its students, who often have unpredictable shift work and family care obligations.

“Many of our students are being asked to work more hours,” Trent says. “So many in our community have been impacted by illness and mental health challenges.”

Students who come to AdvanceEDU increasingly are interested in certificate programs, including in tech, which can help them get a foothold in the labor market while working toward a degree. Trent expects this trend to continue.

Likewise, work-based learning is core to the model. Students typically are working, but often not in jobs that match up with their career aspirations. 

“We help them do some deep exploration of their strengths, values, life goals, and the local labor market so that they get momentum in a particular career direction,” says Trent. Then AdvanceEDU helps students land a paid role—either a full-time one or a cooperative education–style part-time gig with more wiggle room for their studies.

Flexibility is part of why competency-based education is AdvanceEDU’s preferred format. And the degree programs it supports—in business, healthcare leadership, technology, and education—are relatively affordable. Tuition and fees for the SNHU degree path, for example, are $6,495 per year. That amount covers coaching, the co-working space, and career help.

Personalized support offered locally is a winning formula, says Charla Long, president of the Competency-Based Education Network.

“We are interested in seeing how other communities will embrace the hybrid college model as a vehicle for addressing learner, workforce, and community needs,” Long says. “This question remains: Will local colleges and universities respond to the need for these novel approaches, by increasing flexibility in time- and place-bound traditional programs?”

PelotonU offers a free six-week trial period for students to give online competency-based education a whirl before they choose whether to enroll at SNHU or WGU. Tuition and fees for the program top out at $6,300 per year. Each week, students meet with their coach—a veteran educator who is assigned to fewer than 50 students. Coaches are focused on more than academics and offer social, emotional, and logistical support.

“It’s the holistic relationship with a person who knows their story and cares about their goals that makes graduation possible,” say Saxton-Frump and Baird. 

Human coaching tops automated services on certain key supports, in part by helping students feel like part of a community, says Dan Gusz, CEO of Lloyd, which works with hybrid colleges on career coaching. 

“I view what hybrid colleges are doing as bringing the quad feel—and the people you see on the quad—to the cost, scalability, and accessibility benefits of an online degree,” he says.

Roughly 80 percent of PelotonU students earn a degree within one to three years. More than 40 percent graduate without debt. Those who do take out loans have a median debt of roughly $5K.

It’s not clear what sort of scale and per-student price points will be possible for PelotonU as the pandemic subsides, say Baird and Saxton-Frump. “We are confident it is less expensive to grow than existing brick-and-mortar models, especially for the populations we serve.”

Free and Short-Term

Congress hasn’t moved forward with a proposal to open up Pell Grants to short-term certificate programs. And the looming midterm elections have lengthened the odds.

I’ll write soon about the ideas some of you sent me about protections for students and taxpayers under short-term Pell. But in the meantime, anecdotal reporting backs survey findings on increasing demand among potential students for certificates that can be earned quickly.

Short-term certificates will be an increasing part of the credential mix for Ozark Technical Community College, says Hal Higdon, the technical college system’s chancellor.

Ozark Tech, which has six locations in southern Missouri, used federal relief money to offer free short-term training programs to students. Some of these accelerated programs could be finished in four weeks. Higdon said students who completed the construction and HVAC assistant courses did particularly well in the job market.

“People get hired right out of them,” he says.

Short-term programs work best for students if they are offered at no cost, Higdon says, which requires some form of subsidy. “We’ll be going to industries to fund them if we don’t get government moving,” he says.

The community college has had recent success on that front. It just partnered with CoxHealth to offer apprenticeships for certified emergency medical technicians. The instruction and training in the program are free to students, who get paid full-time wages that go up once they get their EMT licensure. Those exams are free as well. In exchange, students commit to working for CoxHealth for about 18 months.

Other high-demand industries could take a similar approach to accelerated certificate programs that are offered for free or as an apprenticeship, says Higdon.

“Hiring first and educating second” is a promising model, he says. But companies have to realize they need to pay for the pipeline of trained workers. “Everybody is used to getting something for nothing,” Higdon says.

Weekend College in Las Vegas: Flexible, short-term programs that are offered online are increasingly popular at the College of Southern Nevada, says Sondra Cosgrove, a veteran history professor and former Faculty Senate chair at the two-year college. Women, students of color, and lower-income students in particular are attracted to these credentials, she says, in part due to childcare demands and the cost of transportation.

“Faculty are not fighting this. We’re on board,” says Cosgrove, who adds that local businesses increasingly are hiring students who earn short-term certificates or offering them paid internships.

The hospitality industry took a huge hit in the Las Vegas metro area, where CSN is located. 

“When Nevada went on lockdown for the pandemic, we had a whole slew of potential students come to our Weekend College program for training,” Cosgrove says. Many of those students said they wanted a “resilient job, a job that didn’t go away.”

The popular skills certificates offered by CSN’s Weekend College are not eligible for Pell Grants, however.

The Kicker: “It’s the government funding part that isn’t moving fast enough,” says Cosgrove. “Pell Grants need to be on demand and need to be for any class offered by an accredited institution with transparent assessment policies.”

Open Tabs

Perception Crisis

More than half of Californians believe the state’s public university systems are not affordable, according to a poll conducted by Strategies 360 and the Los Angeles Times, despite both UC and CSU being among the nation’s lowest priced and highest value. And 63 percent of respondents felt that multiple paths can lead to successful and profitable careers—including community college, apprenticeships, or industry credentials.

Career Paths

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning has received a $15.7M grant from the Truist Foundation to build career paths for underserved working learners in professions and industries that historically have been unavailable to them, including financial services. CAEL will partner with community colleges, Riipen, CollegeAPP, and Emsi Burning Glass, among others, as part of the six-year program.

College Completion

Roughly 39M Americans held some college credits but no credential in 2020, up 3.1M from previous projections, according to a new analysis from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. From among this group, about 1M re-enrolled in college during the 2020–21 academic year, with 61 percent of those students either staying enrolled or earning a credential within a year.

AI Certificates

Two-year colleges award few AI-related credentials, and virtually none in AI-specific fields, according to a recent analysis from the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University. The report called for community colleges to create new AI-related programs with stackable certificates and industry certifications, as well as for the creation of a White House office focused on AI education and the workforce.

Apprenticeship Awareness

“I speak to people all the time who don’t know apprenticeships exist,” Dan Hendricks, a training director for a Colorado-based apprenticeship organization, said during a U.S. Senate hearing on broadband technology jobs. Hendricks said his program can offer 600 apprenticeships but has only filled 360 of them, reports Community College Daily, in part because K-12 does not promote those opportunities.

Hiring Interns

Companies and other employers expect to increase intern hiring by almost 23 percent this academic year, according to results of a new survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. That increase is by far the largest in a decade of surveying and comes after a slight decrease in intern hiring last year. More than 200 employers of various sizes responded to the survey.

Career Connections

A virtual event for employers and higher ed professionals will cover accelerating careers and how Gen Z’s job expectations have changed. Handshake is hosting the event next week, which will include a discussion I’m moderating with Eloy Oakley, chancellor of the California Community Colleges, and Jesse Haines, a director at Grow with Google.

Let me know what I missed? Thanks for reading. —@paulfain

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