Can These New Colleges Help Solve Higher Education’s Equity Problem?

| Kepler
By Allison Dulin Salisbury 

Young people from families in the top income quartile are eight times more likely than those from the bottom quartile to earn a bachelor’s degree by the age of 24. And the problem is getting worse, not better. In its current form, our higher education system amplifies national inequities—when it could be doing the opposite. If the operating model for postsecondary stays the same, the problems of the past will continue to determine the outcomes of the future.

But change is coming, and for the better. In the last few years new postsecondary models have started to spring up on the fringes of higher education, programs such as Da Vinci Extension, Match Beyond and PelotonU. “Hybrid colleges,” as some have dubbed these efforts, embody the kind of innovative thinking needed to tackle higher ed’s intransigent problems, and they are pioneering new approaches to equitable, sustainable and scaleable postsecondary education.

What Change Looks Like

“Hybrid colleges,” as some have dubbed these efforts, embody the kind of innovative thinking needed to tackle higher ed’s intransigent problems.

Loosely defined as affordable programs with strong learning and career outcomes, hybrid colleges often share three design principles: intensive wrap-around student support that directly meets student needs; digital learning programs (often competency-based); and sustainable funding that does not ask students to carry significant debt. These programs aim to support students who face financial or academic stresses, especially low-income, first-generation students who are not well served by the postsecondary system.

Many of these new models are the result of partnerships with College for America, a low-cost, competency-based, online degree program run by Southern New Hampshire University. Through SNHU’s Community Partnerships Program, a Hybrid College offers personalized coaching and advising, connections with employers (and jobs), peer relationships, and other student support services to complement SNHU’s online curriculum. The two partners share in the revenue.

“We saw a need that was not being fully addressed by the existing models and felt strongly, given our mission and our interest, that we could provide a positive impact,” says Bill Hartglass, SNHU vice president for strategic partnerships. “As an organization, we focus on those for whom higher education isn’t a given. By definition, that orientation will lead an organization into initiating new approaches.”

Next Steps

Our postsecondary system needs to become more responsive to how the world and economy is shifting and what that means for learners. That is why fulfilling the promise of hybrid colleges is so important; they are mechanisms for R&D within the education ecosystem–spaces where we can prototype new models and scale what works.

What would it look like if the 2012 craze around massive open online courses were rekindled in service of hybrid colleges?

But for these providers to thrive there will need to be new capacities built across the ecosystem. So what has to be done?

First, we need more College for America-style programs—more high-quality, low-cost, online and competency-based programs open to partnerships with hybrid colleges. Today, the hybrid college field is entirely too dependent on this one program (College for America). What would it look like if the 2012 craze around massive open online courses were rekindled in service of hybrid colleges, if universities rushed to create credit-bearing degree pathways for learners who don’t want, can’t afford, or can’t access the four-year residential college experience? For those who believe public universities should help spur social mobility, this is a dream prospect.

Second, the field needs common language and standards around outcomes and quality. Define quality and you define what gets measured, valued and privileged. (Disclaimer: Entangled Studios recently launched a quality assurance standards organization.) Traditional input-based measures of accreditation will not serve this outcome-oriented cadre of programs well. Instead, there need to be common standards around how to calculate career outcomes, return on investment, and performance against stated learning outcomes.

Focusing on outcomes encourages continuous improvement toward an overall set of goals—in this case, student success—and will introduce unprecedented transparency. In turn, this radical transparency will give students—and those who finance their education—access to trustworthy information and allow them to make informed enrollment and financial decisions. Smarter demand will give way to a smarter (higher quality) supply of providers.

Third, these new models, which are predicated on the belief that students should not carry significant debt, must consider the many forms of financing now available. State and federal dollars are not the only way. MissionU, a one-year bachelor degree alternative, uses income share agreements (ISAs), a financing model where rather than take out loans or pay tuition up front, students pay a small percentage of their salaries once their careers are launched. ISAs are particularly well suited for short-term, career-oriented programs.

Variations on the “learn-while-you-earn” model can also be useful alternatives to standard financing approaches. Under one such approach, the staffing model, learners are employees of a client company. Andela, a startup that trains coders in Africa and hires them out to tech companies around the world, pays a salary to its learners. It gives them each a free computer, offers subsidized housing and provides two meals a day on top of the technical training. YearUp takes a similar approach. Students train for six months and then do a six-month internship. Employers foot the bill for the training in exchange for landing a high quality intern.

At a time when the needs and motivations of learners are increasingly differentiated, so too should be the programs that serve them.

An outsourcing approach sees students do contracted project-based work as part of a training program. Kenzie Academy, which bills itself as a tech apprenticeship school, created a consulting arm called Kenzie Studio where students complete real-world projects. The consulting revenue they receive subsidizes tuition.

And lastly, as the hybrid college ecosystem of providers emerge, the field should resist settling on one model or definition. At a time when the needs and motivations of learners are increasingly differentiated, so too should be the programs that serve them.

There are many unanswered questions about this new space, and the field should not rush to answer them prematurely. Must hybrid college programs result in an accredited degree, or might other forms of credentialing be equally as valuable? Should programs explicitly focus on preparing learners for their first job, or rather, for a lifetime of meaningful employment? Should the models be created specifically with vulnerable populations of low-income learners in mind, or be designed to more broadly serve the entire market? These are useful points of tension that should be allowed to persist and generate thoughtful solutions.

It’s too early to codify “what works.” Instead, the field—colleges, philanthropists and venture capitalists, practitioners and educators—should invest in a range of models and experiments. It’s a time to let a thousand flowers bloom, and to diligently measure the impact of those blossoms on underserved learners and the postsecondary system as a whole.

A Shortlist of Hybrid Colleges

OrganizationYear FoundedCredential AwardedCostTarget Students and Demographics
College Unbound2009Bachelors$40K = $10K/yr @ 4 yrsRhode Island-based

Working adults

75% Pell eligible

Da Vinci Extension2015Associates or Bachelors$11-16.5K = $5.5K/year @ 2-3 year for BA completion60% low-income and first generation

Both AA and BS programs for recent H.S. grads: “13th year” programs and also AA/BA degree via College for America

IDEA U2017Associates or Bachelors$11-16.5K = $5.5K/year @ 2-3 year for BA completionUnderserved recent high school grads
Kepler2013Associates or Bachelors$1K/yr for 3 yrs = $3K totalRwanda-based

> 50% women

Match Beyond2014Associates or Bachelors$11-16.5K = $5.5K/year @ 2-3 year for BA completionBoston-based

Primarily students age 19-24

85% students of color

65% Pell eligible

National Louis University2015Bachelors$40K = $10K/yr @ 4 years for completionRecent high school graduates with less than 16 quarter hour credits
Patten University2013Bachelors$10.5K = $1316/term @ 8 termsWorking adults
PelotonU2012Associates or Bachelors$11-16.5K = $5.5K/year @ 2-3 year for BA completionTexas-based

Working adults

68% first generation

Allison (@amdulin) is President of Entangled Studios.