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Opinion: Amid a global pandemic, could we innovate to find more equality through higher education?

Adry Martinez, a current student at PelotonU in Austin, Texas, has found her groove. It was not always this way. Before coming to PelotonU, Adry attended a state university in California for two years before learning her degree would not set her up for the credential she needed in her career. Heartbroken and frustrated, she considered giving up.

Then, Adry learned about PelotonU. She had a small son and a budding career at the local Public Works department in Austin. Now interested in climbing the ladder there, she began pursuing a degree in public administration through one of PelotonU’s innovative higher education partners, Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). 

Kent Thiry

Adry attributes her success at PelotonU to the highly supportive format of hybrid college. Between all the demands for her time — balancing a job and child-care — Adry is thriving in this flexible learning environment.

Her degree is project-based, so she can master skills and self-pace her education. If she has time, she can expedite her degree, or if she is busy, she can slow it down.

Hybrid college is built to fit your life. The days of conventional classroom schedules — especially in the age of COVID-19 — just do not work for many young adults anymore. A blended format gets at the root causes for college stop-out.

Hybrid colleges are nonprofit organizations that partner with trusted higher education institutions, as PelotonU does with SHNU, to provide career-relevant online degree options and a deep level of local and in-person support.

This support is provided through a co-learning location that equips students with personal coaching, a community of supportive peers and mentors, access to technology, childcare and meals. 

The structure is what really differentiates hybrid college, Adry says. Her coach, Cynthia Suarez, completes the circle.

“In a typical university you have a counselor that tells you what classes to take. I have a relationship with my coach, and she helps me grow both as a student and a person. We talk about things like organization and time management. Having that support system in school is very rare and has been essential to my success. I’m not just another number like I was before. I am a person to the team at PelotonU.”

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This promising new model is no more than five years old, so we’re excited to have Colorado join the leadership ranks by launching AdvanceEDU. We’re already seeing hybrid colleges succeed in states like Massachusetts (Duet), Texas (PelotonU and IdeaU), and California (Rivet School and DaVinci Extension).

In these three states, we found over 75% of students served were Latinx and African American; they ranged in age from 18 to 50 plus; and 85% were first-generation degree seekers. And completion rates for these groups were far outpacing local brick-and-mortar institutions — sometimes by two or three-fold. 

The biggest equalizer? Tuition at hybrid college is typically much lower than traditional institutions, leaving students with little to no student debt. A competency-based education focused on outcomes gives students a crucial advantage.

And it could not come at a better time; the pandemic has only widened the economic inequalities between college graduates and other workers that have existed for years.

For example, 17% of workers without a college degree have lost their job in recent months versus just 8% of those with a college degree. Higher education has long been a key tool in the fight against income inequality, yet here in Colorado — as in other states — it has been an incredibly flawed one that has widened inequality in some ways.

To start, on-time college completion rates have remained stagnant for nearly a decade, currently at 27% and 35% for associates and bachelor’s degrees, respectively.

These pronounced equity gaps have persisted for Colorado’s low-income and first-generation students, as well as students of color (collectively referred to as “New Gen” by some, including author David Kirp); for example, bachelor degree completion rates are 17% lower for low-income students than their peers, and Black students graduate on time from bachelor’s degree programs about half as often as peers.

Now, many colleges are including fully online or blended models into plans for the fall in anticipation of a second COVID-19 wave. Yet, these colleges were not set up for hybrid learning as institutions. The hurdles these colleges already face — high cost, difficult academic navigation and limited support — will only be exacerbated by the pandemic. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

This is precisely why we decided to bring hybrid college to Colorado; AdvanceEDU will launch with our first cohort of students in August. Our model will build on the success of other hybrid college models by including career exploration and paid work-based learning, as well as opportunities for students to engage within their community. 

We’re inspired by Adry and so many other students we’re learning from. In a time where we must look at new models of learning out of necessity, we’re optimistic that many students will find the hybrid college a durable innovation that can help us dramatically increase completion rates and close equity gaps for New Gen students in Colorado and beyond.


Kent Thiry is former CEO of DaVita, Inc. and a civic activist who authored voter-approved gerrymandering reform and open primaries initiatives in Colorado.


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