Soul of Higher Education

Enclosing the field with bounds sets it apart from the boundless of which it was, and is, a part and places it within care. The bounds of the field bind the mind to it.

 A Timbered Choir:
The Sabbath Poems
Wendell Berry, IX (1)

For years, I knew I had a calling but couldn’t quite find the words to articulate it, the phrasing forever on the tip of my tongue and then slipping away. In December of 2018, though, my co-founder Hudson sent me a video of Father Gregory Boyle speaking at Holy Cross and just said “skip ahead to the last four minutes.”

In reflecting on the work he’s done with Homeboy Industries to care for gang members in Los Angeles, Father Boyle says that every nonprofit has essentially the same menu of services, but what matters at Homeboy Industries is that they build a community of tenderness where gang members can face long-buried pain and trauma. He tells a story about Germaine—I won’t spoil it for you; you should watch the video—and then he pauses before speaking the words to a beloved Christmas song, O Holy Night, and interpreting them in a new way:

“And the soul feels its worth. Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till He appeared and the soul felt its worth. Yeah, it’s about Jesus. Yeah, it’s about Christmas. But how is that not your job description as human beings? You appear, and the soul feels its worth.” 

Is that not your job description – to help the soul feel its worth? 

This rhetorical question he poses washed over me warmly – here, I found the words to the calling I’d been trying to name across the first decade of my career. More than a high school diploma or a bachelor’s degree, the deeper work was creating systems and supports that insist on the value of every human.

Working in higher education isn’t the most obvious way to help a soul feel its worth. Many Americans still treat a college degree like a luxury good, and the scene in the public imagination is a khaki-clad co-ed lounging on the quad between classes, reading Nietzsche and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. The higher education world doesn’t conjure up the kind of pain that, say, the work of Father Boyle might. 

That’s because the common perception of higher education is a private four-year degree and the accompanying luxuries we associate with it – but that’s only true for 2.8 million students. Another 14 million study at public or for-profit colleges (with 6 million of those attending community college). As the importance of a degree has grown over the past thirty years, institutions have expanded enrollment. This rapid growth demanded efficiencies and led to a widely-adopted one-size-fits-all approach that has in many ways isolated and commodified the very students higher education has a mandate to serve.

While this industrialization approach expanded college access, it also led to record rates of students not finishing; 250,000 folks in Austin, where we work, and 45 million Americans have started college and not graduated.

The students who don’t finish are the very ones who would benefit most from a degree and the economic opportunity it affords. Eighty percent of students born into the highest income quintile will earn a college degree, while only 8% of students from the lowest will graduate (2). But this is not news. 

What’s an even more troubling product of our system is how it wounds the self-esteem of students who don’t graduate. These students come to believe that if they’d just had more money, more time, more smarts, or more grit, then they’d be able to finish. Regardless of whether the barriers and causes were cultural or personal, the student internalizes the blame. At PelotonU we have a different explanation: the system was never designed to serve them.

Almost seventy percent of students are now post-traditional (3), which means they either work full-time, are over the age of 24, enroll part-time, or are a parent. Their changing professional and personal responsibilities don’t fit within the fixed semesters and stringent seat-time requirements of traditional college. Even when instruction is delivered online, students are beset by inflexible deadlines. 

That’s why we designed a new path to college graduation—a solution that both addresses the structural barriers confronting students and offers a new narrative about their intrinsic dignity and worth. 

To address the structural barriers, PelotonU combines three existing elements into a new model.

  1. Enrollment Advising. We provide the needed flexibility by helping students pick from a curated list of top online universities: competency-based degree programs that are high-quality, affordable, self-paced, and designed specifically for learners with full lives.
  2. Study Space. We offer a place to study that’s open 60 hours a week, including nights and weekends. The study space creates a sense of belonging where students learn alongside peers and an on-hand tutor to support their studies.
  3. Coaching. We hire trained educators to meet in person every week with students from when they enroll to when they graduate. The coach offers hope by serving as a trusted guide for a new and complex journey.

As Wendell Berry says in the quote above, we designed our model to place students within care where they can be treated as whole persons (not just students with specific academic milestones to hit) on an individual journey (not being batch-processed), that includes the make-or-break step of selecting the right program.

So the essence of our model is care; the crux of our care is coaching; and our coaching approach stems from the conviction, so astutely phrased by Father Boyle, that one of our highest callings is to help each other feel our worth.

Most of us walk around wondering if we’re loveable, if we’re good enough, if we’re seen. Dr. Brené Brown calls those whispers from your inner critic “shame tapes.” They’re the persistent voices that might hint (or scream) that you’re not smart enough or too old, that you don’t belong or no one could ever love you. 

When we begin to pay attention to what’s going on in our head, we find we all have shame tapes; and even when we beat them into submission for a season, they often resurface.

Dr. Brown defines shame as:

  • The intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.
  • The fear of disconnection.
  • The fear that there is something about us that makes others consider us unworthy.

She goes on to highlight the three most important things to know about shame. 

  1. We all have it. Shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions that we experience. The only people who don’t experience shame lack the capacity for empathy and human connection.
  2. We’re all afraid to talk about it.
  3. The less we talk about it, the more control it has over our lives.

Indeed, my own experience with shame enables me to see how it drives people’s behavior at every turn. 

That might sound depressing, but I assure you it’s not. Realizing this is one of the greatest gifts I’ve been given. It shows me the ways in which people in my life (including me!) need to be reminded of their worth and dignity. And it helps me respond rightly: not by taking personally their behavior or even by letting my own shame tapes play out (oh, she doesn’t want to hang out with me anymore. I knew I was too much for people to handle…), but rather by moving toward the person who feels ashamed even as they’re being driven to isolation. We each have the power to interrupt each other’s shame tapes and remind one another of our God-given worth and dignity.

For a moment, imagine you dropped out of college at nineteen. You worked for a while, felt stuck, and went back to school. And then you dropped out again. Another 5 years went by, and you tried again—but it only got harder. You have a couple kids now, and bills that require a full-time job. The years go by. You’re 37 now. Your kids are in high school, you’re out of credit card debt, and the time is right. You want to go back. You can afford it. But your transcript is a mess, there’s a couple holds on your account, and you’re a college drop-out thrice over.

Odds are, you feel like your failure is entirely your fault. Your shame tape might be saying you didn’t try hard enough, you didn’t really want it, you didn’t deserve it, or you’re not smart enough. When you think about going back with a full-time job and kids in high school, your shame tape might say you’re too old or you won’t be able to keep up with the material. 

Would you take the risk and go back? 

Daniela, the student in this situation, nearly didn’t. The shame tapes almost won, but her manager encouraged her to give college one more try with a new program their company was partnering with—that’s us, PelotonU. 

In record time, Daniela earned her associate degree and decided to continue pursuing her bachelor’s. Now she’s eyeing a Master’s degree. She’s been promoted and received a pay raise, and her grown children are cheering her on. 

Daniela thought she didn’t have what it takes—that when it counted she wouldn’t be enough. And she had evidence to back up her belief: after all, she’d dropped out of school 3 times before, and now she was “too old” to be in school. 

Millions of capable Americans are walking around with a voice in their head saying they weren’t good enough because they never graduated. 

And hundreds of college persistence nonprofits now work to equip students with all the tools and resources they need to succeed. Most of these hard-working, earnest, and well-intentioned organizations address academic barriers, then logistical ones, then emotional ones. It makes sense—this is the order in which these present themselves on the surface. 

But when we tackle academic and logistics barriers first, we can actually widen the cracks for shame to get into our students’ hearts. When we tell our students we’ve equipped them with everything they need to be successful and they fail, their inevitable conclusion is that there must be something wrong with them. It’s like when a friend tells you a recipe is easy or a math problem is simple—but then your cake flops or you get the wrong answer. Our shame tape pipes up to remind us that we’re bad cooks or stupid. 

But we know that shame drives us away and into isolation, when the very thing we need is community and connection. It’s from this conviction that PelotonU’s coaching flows. Our students are people first. They have dignity and worth unrelated to their past performance in school or how many credits they’ve earned or how badly they’re ghosting us when they’re struggling and the shame tapes are winning. Our coaches regularly live out the truth of each student’s inherent dignity as we walk alongside our students, trying to help them know their worth.

Practically, this creates four key pillars of our coaching. 

  1. We acknowledge the role of the higher education system in making people feel shame. We help decouple our students’ negative experiences with higher ed from their self-esteem by showing them the structures outside their control that made success so unlikely, even when they did everything right.
  2. We empower students to take control of their education, highlight their strengths, and show them how to bring those to bear on their academics. We ensure students have the needed tools to solve their own problems, and then we insist they solve them.  
  3. We actively combat shame in our coaching meetings and program and teach students about it early on. We avoid phrases that might make a student feel shame (“You’re still working on that project? Yesenia finished it in just a week.”). We stay up to date on trauma-informed practices and prioritize the emotional and psychological needs of our students before logistical and academic needs. 
  4. We infuse grace into our policies and procedures, and religiously adopt an attitude of “not yet.” If a student misses a deadline, we always ask if everything’s okay, even if it’s the seventh time. We have a policy for students who need to take a break from school—students who would drop out from traditional programs but instead remain enrolled with no long-term consequences to their academic standing or self-esteem. 

These values create a sense of hope and have resulted in industry-leading outcomes for our learners. Since 2014, PelotonU has served over 275 students and seen a 80% persistence rate, five times better than the local alternative. Universities also pay us for this coaching, which covered 35% of our expenses in 2019 and will grow to fund 70% of our costs in the next three years.

Eighty-two percent of our students will be the first in their family to earn a college degree. Sixty-five percent have tried college before, and 50% are parents. Their average age is 27, and average annual income is $21,000.

What’s most exciting is the 90 degrees we’ve enabled so far—degrees that couldn’t have happened anywhere else. And while we deeply believe a college degree has a unique role in shaping a student’s future, it’s not for the credential that we give our hearts to this work. We do it because along the way to graduation, students discover what was there all along: their own courage, resilience, and affection for learning.

As students grow in self-confidence, their friends and coworkers see it as well, and it often leads to better pay. PelotonU students have seen 172 promotions or pay raises; our bachelor’s degree earners now average an 84% increase in wages. 

My co-founder Hudson and I often get asked what comes next, and the answer is one of a handful of tensions we hold. We balance providing robust support to our students with using donated funds efficiently to serve more folks. We grow more slowly than we might so as not to exhaust our team or make unnecessary mistakes. We stop what we’re doing when students want to talk, even with grant deadlines looming, because caring for students comes before our task list.

We get less done to be sure, but being thoughtfully inefficient is the sort of organization we hope to be. We hope to stop and hear a story and admire the student’s journey before profferring advice; we hope to be the community members who know our neighbors—and not only their names but their dreams and extended family.

As team leaders, we hope to carry with us a peace that creates rest and health for our team, so they in turn can offer the same for our students who thereby create more for one another. In the middle of that cycle, folks begin to find hope and take the next step towards what once felt out of reach.

As to vision, we’re rooted in the fabric and aspirations of our local community, and intend to share what we’re learning to help others do the same in new cities. We believe this work strengthens families, makes communities more resilient, and slows the loneliness and fragmentation unique to this generation.

If we do our jobs well then other places will continue to take interest, and we’ll look back in ten years at a movement of students who have come to realize not only new educational and economic worth but also their soul’s worth.


(1) Berry, Wendell. A timbered choir : the sabbath poems, 1979-1997. Washington, D.C: Counterpoint, 1998. Print - page 19.
(2) Mortenson, Tom. “Bachelor’s Degree Attainment by Age 24 by Family Income Quartiles, 1970 to 2009.” http://www. Underlying data sources: Current Population Survey, U.S. data for 2009 compiled with the assistance of Kurt Bauman, Chief, Education, and Social Stratification Branch, U.S. Census Bureau.