The two biggest challenges facing any alternative to traditional college that’s aimed at working learners are:
- Will it actually attract students?
- Does the model provide the sort of support lower-income students need to succeed?
Hybrid colleges are explicitly designed to address both issues. And the evolving approach of these 15 nonprofits
is worth watching as more intermediaries try to bridge gaps between education and employment.
Here’s how it has worked so far: Students pay tuition to attend online programs from Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, Colorado State University Global, and others, with a focus on competency-based degrees. The universities share tuition revenue with the hybrid colleges, which provide in-person coaching, career advising, childcare, and other supports.
“It was college meets co-working, for working adults from age 18 to their mid 60s,”
says Hudson Baird
, executive director of PelotonU, a hybrid college he co-founded a decade ago. “It’s a model I miss.”
The Austin-based PelotonU’s approach changed permanently because of the pandemic, say Baird and Sarah Saxton-Frump
, the nonprofit’s co-founder and COO. Previously, PelotonU told students that the magic of the model was the flexibility of competency-based education embedded in a community of peers.
“What we didn’t realize was that requiring attendance at a space, even when that can change each week, is also prohibitive to all sorts of students—those without transportation or who live further away or who have caregiving responsibilities,” the two co-founders say.
Besides realizing that PelotonU needed to offer more flexibility, the nonprofit also has acknowledged that students mostly come to the campus to meet with their coach, not to study. So it changed course:
“The pandemic forced a migration to fully virtual support, and we found that the trusted coaching relationship was the key ingredient—not community. We still believe in, and operate, a physical location (that’s now more like a drop-in library) and are also learning that a fully virtual model can serve students in more places while creating a trusted relationship between coach and student.”
View from Colorado:
AdvanceEDU also has experienced shifts during the last couple years, says Lauren Trent
, CEO of the Denver-based campus, which has a goal of enrolling 10K students over a decade.
For one thing, Trent says the field is moving away from the term “hybrid college” to better describe what they do, which doesn’t include issuing degrees. While Trent and others in the Hybrid College Network
haven’t landed on new nomenclature yet, she refers to AdvanceEDU as a hybrid college support organization.
The pandemic amplified the variable pacing needs of its students, who often have unpredictable shift work and family care obligations.
“Many of our students are being asked to work more hours,” Trent says. “So many in our community have been impacted by illness and mental health challenges.”
Students who come to AdvanceEDU increasingly are interested in certificate programs, including in tech, which can help them get a foothold in the labor market while working toward a degree. Trent expects this trend to continue.
Likewise, work-based learning is core to the model. Students typically are working, but often not in jobs that match up with their career aspirations.
“We help them do some deep exploration of their strengths, values, life goals, and the local labor market so that they get momentum in a particular career direction,” says Trent. Then AdvanceEDU helps students land a paid role—either a full-time one or a cooperative education
–style part-time gig with more wiggle room for their studies.
Flexibility is part of why competency-based education is AdvanceEDU’s preferred format. And the degree programs it supports—in business, healthcare leadership, technology, and education—are relatively affordable
. Tuition and fees for the SNHU degree path, for example, are $6,495 per year. That amount covers coaching, the co-working space, and career help.
Personalized support offered locally is a winning formula, says Charla Long
, president of the Competency-Based Education Network.
“We are interested in seeing how other communities will embrace the hybrid college model as a vehicle for addressing learner, workforce, and community needs,“ Long says. "This question remains: Will local colleges and universities respond to the need for these novel approaches, by increasing flexibility in time- and place-bound traditional programs?”
PelotonU offers a free six-week trial period for students to give online competency-based education a whirl before they choose whether to enroll at SNHU or WGU. Tuition and fees for the program top out at $6,300 per year. Each week, students meet with their coach—a veteran educator who is assigned to fewer than 50 students. Coaches are focused on more than academics and offer social, emotional, and logistical support.
“It’s the holistic relationship with a person who knows their story and cares about their goals that makes graduation possible,” say Saxton-Frump and Baird.
Human coaching tops automated services on certain key supports, in part by helping students feel like part of a community, says Dan Gusz
, CEO of Lloyd
, which works with hybrid colleges on career coaching.
“I view what hybrid colleges are doing as bringing the quad feel—and the people you see on the quad—to the cost, scalability, and accessibility benefits of an online degree,” he says.
On average, PelotonU students earn their first credential within 1.3 years. More than 40 percent graduate without debt. Those who do take out loans have a median debt of roughly $5K.
It’s not clear what sort of scale and per-student price points will be possible for PelotonU as the pandemic subsides, say Baird and Saxton-Frump. “We are confident it is less expensive to grow than existing brick-and-mortar models, especially for the populations we serve.”