Combining online courses with in-person supports, ‘hybrid colleges’ unite

Over the past decade, physical outposts have sprung up across the United States to provide students taking online college courses with a physical space to study and interact. In Denver, there’s a suite in an office complex. In Austin, there’s an airy room that looks like a coworking setup. In Philadelphia, there is room in a modern skyscraper.

Calling themselves “hybrid universities,” these mini-campus centers have set big goals, such as bringing college within reach of those historically excluded from higher education.

Today, more than a dozen of these nonprofits are strengthening their ties and committing to common goals by creating the Hybrid College Network.

“The network is incredibly collaborative. They are proud of the model because it serves students very well,” says Lauren Trent, CEO of AdvanceEDU in Colorado, which launched in 2020. “There is a mutual interest in learning from each other, when models are different, what drives student success? »

Hybrid university programs are a symbiosis between online higher education institutions and nonprofit organizations that provide location-based support systems. Students pay tuition to colleges, which then share revenue with nonprofits, which use the funds to pay for services students access in person, including coaching, career counseling, and counseling for basic needs, such as meals and childcare.

The Hybrid College Network’s website touts the model as “more efficient than community colleges, more efficient than 4-year colleges, and more affordable than online colleges,” citing its member programs’ low tuition rates and rates retention rates of the students these programs serve. The concept is designed to improve college access and graduation, especially for people pursuing higher education part-time, a group that has historically had low graduation rates. The strategy is somewhat similar to what some online colleges have tried themselves by implementing their own hybrid campuses.

“The supports we provide are intended to help streamline and simplify the college experience for students who, on their own, would struggle to cope in all areas,” Trent says. “The ability to walk in and have a quiet study space, Wi-Fi, staff support, meals, on-site childcare, that’s a game-changer for many students.”

The model is built around competency-based online degree pathways. Most network programs partner with Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America, according to Hudson Baird, executive director of the nonprofit PelotonU in Austin, though some support students enrolled at Western Governors University. and at Brandman University, among other institutions.

Instead of tests and trials, competency-based education assigns students projects inspired by “real-world” scenarios pulled directly from work environments, Trent says. For example, courses for a business degree might ask students to assess an organization’s financial situation, consider renting or buying a facility, analyze how to invest marketing resources, and write everything down. this in a note to a fictional boss.

One of the benefits of this approach is that it “tends to be extremely engaging and relevant” for students, says Trent. But one downside, she adds, is that there are only a few skill-based pathways available, which limits many students to degrees in business, communications, general studies and healthcare management. health. To expand options, AdvanceEDU helps interested students earn an associate’s degree from Southern New Hampshire University and then transfer their credits to Colorado State University Global for a bachelor’s degree.

Research is ongoing on the effectiveness of competency-based degree programs. Some have been criticized for lacking substantive teaching, but proponents argue the programs make college more flexible and affordable.

Indeed, affordability is a top priority of the hybrid college model, Trent says, and many programs peg their tuition to the Pell Grants the federal government offers to low-income students.

Similar to community colleges and four-year universities, many hybrid college programs and services have moved online during the COVID-19 pandemic. But when students can meet in person at their hybrid academic centers, leaders say they get a taste of campus life that so many students at more traditional institutions enjoy.

“Friendships are formed, even romances are formed,” Trent says. “They have a lot of community seeing each other here.”

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