This Viewpoint is part of an ongoing series, “Building a brighter future: Big ideas in postsecondary education.” In this series, we ask innovators what could make a difference to learners in 2021 and beyond.
Bradley Hooser is Innovation Manager at PelotonU.
“You need that piece of paper unless you wanna be like me.” My dad’s words made their way through a mouth of Skoal spit, and clanged off the walls of my teenage skull, exacerbating the noise-soup of college advice I was already getting from competitive parents, distracted counselors, and clueless friends. His hand moved from my shoulder to the 8-ball on his rusted shift knob. He grunted with exasperation, and I thought I was destined to be a “failure” like him.
A decade-plus later, I’m supporting the 2nd Annual Hybrid College Convening, helping over 30 leaders take on the difficult task of redesigning the college experience to work for people like me. People who seem destined to “fail” — not, as my dad implied, because there is something wrong with them, but because the system isn’t yet designed to serve us.
While the typical college student has changed dramatically, the college system hasn’t. Today 74% of college students are considered “post-traditional” — which means they’re a parent, older than 24, or working more than 30 hours per week. The era where the average student can feasibly enroll at age 18, live on campus full-time, and have the support to be focused solely on learning is long gone (if it ever existed). The higher education system doesn’t accommodate the diversity and complexity of today’s students, and they struggle to graduate. According to U.S. Census data, 45 million people in the U.S. have started college but not yet earned their degree.
A whopping 65% of job openings in 2020 required at least a two-year college degree, so college is still the primary pathway to economic mobility. But many students lack the means to complete their college program. This is why PelotonU built a new degree pathway. We aim to provide students the flexibility they need to balance family and work obligations, alongside the emotional and psychological support students want as they balance multiple responsibilities.
Flexibility in the PelotonU model is a deviation from the typical college model. Rather than offer time-based units, like semesters, which require students to balance a complex schedule and competing priorities, PelotonU partners with Southern New Hampshire University to deliver a proven alternative: competency-based education (CBE). CBE allows students to take one course at a time, broken up into skills-based projects. Do you already know these skills? Submit the project for mastery, get it reviewed, and quickly move onto the next one. Having trouble with a project or a life event outside school? The student can slow things down and absorb the knowledge required for mastery.
In addition to this flexibility, PelotonU provides effective one-on-one coaching to every student. Our coaches are paired with a student, develop a relationship of trust, and then provide trauma-informed support for their student throughout their college experience. Our coaches focus on tackling emotional barriers to success first, then logistical and academic challenges. This inside-out approach has resulted in an 80% persistence rate, compared to 16% for students in comparable programs in Central Texas.
So the big idea is simple. But it’s not easy: Allow students to build their educational foundation one brick at a time, at their own pace, and offer coaching support. We partner with organizations on the ground as they undertake this challenge, and we make sure students have everything they need to reach their goals. At PelotonU, we deliver this model with professionally trained coaches, partner support at the local level, a boatload of kindness, and the magic of our extraordinary students.
The Charles Koch Foundation partners with social entrepreneurs to drive societal progress through academic research and innovations that help all learners realize their potential. Read more about the Foundation’s support for education.