A Crash Course in PelotonU

We’re PelotonU, a higher-education non-profit and scrappy start-up based in Austin, TX. Here’s what we do, why we do it and what keeps us up at night.

The Problem

In Central Texas, 4,000 students start and drop out of college every year — that’s before you even count the 30% of local high school graduates (around 4,200 students) who intend to enroll in college and never do.

Locally, only 28% of of high school graduates earn a certificate, Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree in six years. If you come from a low-income family, that number drops to 12% for ANY credential — we’re not even talking Bachelor’s degrees here, folks.

Add to that the fact that nearly half of Austin students go to college part-time. If you start college part-time, there is only a 16% chance you will graduate with your intended credential, no matter your race or income status. So if you’re anybody, there’s a 1 in 3 chance you’ll ever earn something past a high school diploma. If you grew up in a low-income home, your chances are 1 in 10.

Are you hitting your head against the wall yet? Because we haven’t even touched the significant debt a bachelor’s degree earner holds — and that number averages $29,000. Started college and didn’t earn your degree? Then you’re sitting on loans without a beneficial credential.

The system is broken. It’s neither effective nor efficient.

We need another path to a college degree.

What We Want to Do

We’re building a new way to go to college.

In the current landscape, most students have two degree pathways: universities and community colleges. The problem is not the universities themselves, which face a varied and difficult mandate, but rather a mismatch between the changing type of student and existing education ecosystem. College students are now likely to be employed, older, and taking longer to graduate. Meanwhile, the typical university has changed little over the past fifty years.

Our mission is to increase college graduation rates for working students by blending online education with in-person support.

We want to share what we learn with anyone and everyone — communities exist around the country and world where students have the drive to earn their degree but their geography or economics get in the way.

So here’s what we do.

Key Program Components at PelotonU

High Quality Online UniversitiesWe cultivate a small list of online degree programs that are competency-based and regionally-accredited. The competency-based criteria benefits students in two key ways. First, students can adjust their pace to meet their own learning needs — the goal of the course is to ensure students have mastered all the skills and knowledge in the course. If a student begins a course knowing 80% of the content then they learn the remaining 20%, demonstrate mastery of those skills and move to their next class. Similarly, if a student knows very little of the material, they can slow down and ensure they truly learn rather than moving at the professor’s pace.

Additionally, students in competency-based programs take one class at a time. Student takes the same number of classes over the course of a year — they just take a new class roughly every month. Because our students work 20–50 hours a week, this approach enables them to better balance work, life and their education.

Lastly, regional accreditation ensures students can transfer their credits easily to another university if the student needs to complete their degree at a brick-and-mortar university.

College for AmericaWGU, and Patten are the programs we currently love, and we’re excited about the growing options and increasing quality in the marketplace.

In-Person Support: This is the cornerstone of our program and the component our students cite as most helpful. Every student works with a College Completion Advisor, a trained educator and full-time staff. These bi-weekly conversations hold students accountable for consistent progress, encourage students when they encounter non-academic obstacles, and problem-solve when issues arise. The CCA’s goal is to help students grow towards independence so they can complete their degree on their own, either online or in-person.

We also require our first year students to come to our office (in Vessel Coworking) for 12 hours a week in order to work on school, meet with their CCA and have a dedicated study space. This holds students accountable to a minimum amount of time committed to school each week and allows their CCA to provide just-in-time interventions and tutoring as needed.

Scholarship: We provide a last-dollar scholarship that covers all or almost all the cost of college for our students. This is what enables 100% of our students to attend college-debt-free.

What Keeps Us Up at Night

We’re a passionate bunch here at PelotonU.

This college persistence problem is an important issue in Central Texas for two reasons. First, there are clear implications for students and their families when they miss out on post-secondary education. Second, the Austin economy continues to suffer from a regional skills gap.

On an individual level, a Bachelor’s degree is an important predictive indicator. College graduates earn, on average, one million dollars more in their working career than high school graduates. The likelihood of unemployment is twice as high for someone with only a high school diploma. What’s more, the child of a college-educated parent is much more likely to earn a postsecondary credential themselves.

There are also a variety of secondary factors influenced by college completion. Home ownership rates are higher, while the likelihood of divorce is lower. These occur not only because of the credential, but because of the self-esteem and community built through the academic process.

What’s more, the students who start college and do not finish are overwhelmingly low-income.

This is an economic issue, a wellness issue and a social justice issue.

So why is getting students to go back to college so hard? We don’t know.

But we’re going to figure it out.

Data thanks to E3 Alliance’s reports on higher ed enrollment, persistence and completion in either this year or last year’s report. Happy data hunting.