PelotonU: Rethinking college for adults

This blog is the second in a series about how organizations across Central Texas are working to help improve graduation rates for low-income students. Among all Texas metros, Austin’s low-income students have the lowest post-secondary outcomes – only 8 percent of low-income students obtain a college degree. We know that a higher education degree is a pathway out of poverty, so our partners in Austin are creating new models to address the complex combination of challenges that students face on their journey to a degree. This blog series will feature student stories and share the new models our partners are using to create pathways to success for students. Read the whole series here. 

Meet Sheila Matthews, a site director for Open Door Preschool and PelotonU student pursuing her bachelor’s degree.  Sheila is a 51-year-old mother, grandmother and wife who cherishes the time she spent in elementary and high school. “It was the beginning of my dream of becoming a teacher,” she shares. She received her associate degree in human service in 1988 and returned to Austin Community College (ACC) with the goal of transferring to a four-year university; but, inevitably life got in the way, and she stopped attending to focus full-time on being a mother. Later, she received a scholarship to Liberty University and earned her Preschool Certificate; she re-enrolled in ACC again, “taking one class at a time, still with the mindset of transferring.” As a working adult, however, Sheila says she “struggled with the typical classroom settings and the times that classes were offered.” She was “determined not to quit” despite the sense that she was spinning her wheels.

A common and growing problem

Sheila is not alone in her struggle as an adult trying to complete college. In fact, one of higher education’s greatest challenges is helping working adults complete a college degree. Forty-five million high school graduates over the age of 25 are now working adults who may have some college experience but do not hold a college degree. Earning a livable wage, changing careers and providing opportunities for their families have been and continue to become increasingly difficult. Yet the solution isn’t as simple as just going back to school. The barriers they face have only become more imposing with time.

Seventy-one percent of current college students are nontraditional (e.g., older than 24, commuting, or attending part-time), and only 16 percent of part-time students ever earn a credential. The traditional college model hasn’t adapted to the needs and barriers of today’s college student who juggles work and family commitments while pursuing their education.

A new way to think about college

That’s where PelotonU comes in. We provide the flexibility and support that working adults need by blending high-quality online education with in-person coaching. We know this combination is working, because 81 percent of our students are persisting and 90 percent of those who persist will earn their degree on time.

At the core of PelotonU’s model is a paradigm shift: higher education should fit into the lives of students, not the other way around. Through mentorship, community, and competency-based curriculum, students who never thought they could go back to college are thriving – and those utilizing Pell grants are thriving debt-free. Given the historically low completion rate of working adults and the rising cost of tuition, PelotonU’s success is a testament to the thoughtful combination of flexibility and support provided to their students.

Sheila’s story

She remembers the day she heard about PelotonU:

“I was having a meltdown over a class I was taking. I looked up the website for PelotonU and made an appointment immediately.”

Sheila now attends one of PelotonU’s college partners, Southern New Hampshire University’s competency-based program, College for America. She’s pursuing a bachelor’s in management and is on track to earn her degree in Spring 2019. College for America’s focus on projects, skills, and feedback has been a boon to Sheila who says she’s “not a good test taker.”

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Sheila. Amid juggling major health issues in her family, Sheila’s job requires her to work late hours and go beyond her leadership role to provide additional classroom support. Sheila’s strength and fierce determination carried her to success, but she also credits the mentorship she received from PelotonU.

“Being older than the average college student and getting back into the rhythm of school was difficult. Having a mentor who holds me accountable and helps me set realistic goals has given me the courage to keep going.” What’s more, she continues, “it’s the first time in a long time that someone outside my family has shown an interest in my education. My mentor really cares – I’m not just a number in a classroom, and this has made my life more meaningful.” PelotonU’s study space has bolstered Sheila’s motivation by offering a community that strictly online programs lack. Students can connect with other working adults pursing the same route and overcoming the same difficulties.

Sometimes, Sheila still wants to give up; but, she’s seen what’s possible with the backing of a mentor and the right kind of college. With support, she knows she can do it, and so can others.

“It’s a challenge for those of us who want to make a difference to step out of the box and say, ‘I can, and I will do it,’” she shares, “You’re never too old to learn, and you’re never too old to enroll in PelotonU.”