Who Do You Serve First?

Teddy Roosevelt famously once said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

For a start up like us, this triggered an important question in the early stages of forming our higher education non-profit. What can we actually do right now with what we have?

In short: with limited staff, money and time to demonstrate our viability, let’s serve students with the smallest barriers to college now so we can serve students with more complex barriers later.

Early in our formation, we tried to achieve our mission of helping working students graduate from college on-time and debt-free in a risky way. We thought we could serve the hardest-to-reach students, provide a safe residential environment, provide jobs with the same employer, study with them, and enroll them in a competency-based, online college program. The problem? You take young men with significant academic, social, and emotional needs and make them share bedrooms…and you find that you’ve built a powder keg just begging for your very own Franz Ferdinand.

What we had to figure out is this idea of margin — and not the financial kind. We at PelotonU want to be the better option — the more effective, more efficient option — for working college students. And what that means, for now, is that our 1 woman mentorship team can’t effectively serve the most-in-need students — at least not yet. Though this breaks our heart, we know that focusing on serving students with ONE variable preventing them from college — academic skill, money, scheduling, needing a mentor, etc — is going to allow us to eventually serve students fighting to overcome ALL of them.

Right now, with our resources, where we are, here’s what we can do: We can serve the students most ready for college who, for one reason or another, haven’t been successful in traditional degree programs.

But again, a question: how do we determine who’s most ready and who will thrive in our program?

Here’s where we landed: we need to screen our students on four criteria: teachability, aptitude, grit and self-management. Do they respond well to feedback and incorporate it quickly — or, even better, do they seek it out on their own? Is college level academic work within their reach — even if they’re not technically “college-ready?” Do they have a history of persevering through obstacles and bouncing back after failures? Can they manage a schedule and appointments? Respond to email? Show up on time? Communicate when they’re running late?

We arrived at these four selection criteria by consulting existing research and sussing out the vital behaviors of our own successful students. Once we narrowed it down to the correct criteria (and let it be noted: we started with 5, but eventually merged “perseverance” and “commitment” into “grit.”), we fleshed out a rubric so we could add nuance and clarity to our understanding of a student’s current skill level in each domain.

Another time, I’ll write about the admissions process we designed to collect information about a student’s strength in each area — and how we’ve improved it since inception — but for now, know we collect multiple data points during an initial application, phone screen, in person interview and 60 day provisional enrollment period to ultimately inform our Admissions Committee’s decision about enrolling and offering scholarships.

We’ve been satisfied thus far with the effectiveness of our rubric and screening process, even as we continue to iterate and challenge our assumptions

Check out the rubric we use and send us your thoughts! You can reach us at info@pelotonu.org