Today’s average college student looks different than the picture of a bright-faced 18-year-old setting foot on campus for the first time. Millions of learners work part- or full-time, raise children, care for loved ones, and lead busy lives. They need an education that fits their lifestyle and unique circumstances.
Founded in 2012 in Austin, Texas, PelotonU takes a multi-faceted approach to supporting individuals as they work full-time and earn an accredited, marketable credential. PelotonU matches students with the best and most affordable online universities, offers a community-based local learning environment, and pairs each student with a full-time coach who offers encouragement and accountability. It’s a model for postsecondary learning that is gaining momentum as education transitions to its next iteration in a post-COVID-19 world.
“Our country faces a variety of hard questions without clear solutions, including the cost of health care, need for criminal justice reform, lack of affordable housing, and growing political division,” says Hudson Baird, co-founder and executive director of PelotonU. “Similarly, higher education is struggling to keep up with a changing labor market, rising student debt, and inequitable outcomes.”
In response to this reality, PelotonU’s low-cost, high-quality, “hybrid college” approach helps working adults complete college faster and cheaper.
“This is what makes me so excited about hybrid colleges,” Baird says. “They’re reinventing higher education to not only solve the most pressing issues facing students but also to build a relational community that offers students the hope, skills, and confidence to reach their goals and strengthen their own neighborhoods.”
Low cost is a selling point for PelotonU. Average tuition expenses are in the range of $6,000 per year compared to $11,039 for a public in-state school in Texas. On average, students complete an associate’s degree in 12 months and a bachelor’s degree in 36 months, with an overall persistence rate of 78 percent. Learners who complete a bachelor’s degree see an average earning increase of $19,107 per year.
But costs aren’t the only aspect that make PelotonU attractive for working learners. New cohorts of students start every two months, giving busy adults a nimble way to leap directly into a degree program. Maintaining motivation is a significant factor for students, so coaches meet weekly with learners to offer guidance, encouragement, and accountability.
Heather is a single mom of two who recently completed her associate’s degree through PelotonU. She is now working on her bachelor’s degree in health–care management. She didn’t want to take on debt to finish school, especially if she fell short in earning a credential. “I like the idea of doing work at your own pace but always having help available,” she says. “I also like the community included in that. PelotonU offers all of these things and more.”
PelotonU’s hybrid model faced a significant stress test with the COVID-19 pandemic. Previously anchored to in-person study spaces, its support is now exclusively online, which has been a tough haul for an approach that prides itself on face-to-face interaction. Student contact with coaches transitioned to Zoom and FaceTime. PelotonU found that the quality of interaction and academic outcomes didn’t decline.
“We were worried the students wouldn’t feel as close to the coach, wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing their real lives,” says Sarah Saxton-Frump, co-founder and chief operating officer for PelotonU. “That hasn’t been the case from the feedback we’ve been getting. They still value the interaction regardless of whether it’s in person or virtual.”
Recruiting cohorts outside of Austin is PelotonU’s next step. Based on its current success, staff are looking to replicate the program in a range of cities, including Cincinnati, New York, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C.
Part of its strategy is to partner with other organizations serving working learners. In Cincinnati, for example, PelotonU has joined with CityLink Center — a nonprofit dedicated to helping the unemployed and working poor achieve a flourishing life — to recruit new students into the program. PelotonU provides the curriculum and coaching, while CityLink Center provides secondary supports, including computers, social services, and scholarships. PelotonU is actively seeking additional partners.
For students like Heather, PelotonU has opened a path forward. “I never knew what I wanted to do or how I would ever afford school,” she says. “But my experience at PelotonU has been great. It helped me understand how I learn and what works best for me … my dream is to continue growing and learning for the rest of my life.”
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.