Altius Education’s Ivy Bridge Disrupts Community College Through Technology

I have a theory about what makes the best entrepreneurs so good: each one is driven by a conviction that he’s discovered some deep flaw in the world. This problem sticks in his craw as if it were a personal affront, and he simply can’t rest until he’s done something to fix it.

The problem that offends Paul Freedman is this: About 75 percent of the 3.4 million students enrolled in community colleges in the United States say they intend to transfer eventually to a four-year university—but only 20 percent ever do.

That is a horrendous reality, if you think about it. It means that nearly a million people every year are dropping out of the higher-education system. For one reason or another, they’re giving up on their dreams of obtaining a four-year degree and all of the economic benefits known to go with it.

It’s conceivable, as a few commentators have recently dared to suggest, that some of these students are simply unfit for the rigors of college life. But Freedman thinks this group is very small, if it exists at all. He believes that the “success gap” is rooted not in students’ personal failings, but in the very way community colleges are structured. And he created Altius Education to show that there’s a different way.

Altius—the word is Latin for “higher”—is headquartered in San Francisco and is backed by nearly $27 million in venture funding from Spark Capital, Maveron, and Charles River Ventures. The company is the co-owner, with Tiffin University in Tiffin, OH, of a for-profit online degree program called Ivy Bridge College. Unlike the University of Phoenix—which bestows associate’s, bachelor’s, and graduate degrees, and is by far the best-known online higher-ed provider—Ivy Bridge has one goal, and that is to get its students into a traditional four-year university. In fact, if Ivy Bridge students maintain the required GPA, they’re guaranteed admission to one of 78 four-year institutions with which Altius and Tiffin have transfer agreements.

Ivy Bridge enrolled its first students in August 2008, and has served only 1,800 students overall, so it’s barely old enough to have much of a record. But so far, says president and CEO Freedman, “It’s looking like about 60 percent of the students who start our program end up graduating with a degree or transferring to a four-year school, compared to 20 percent for the industry average.” In two and a half years, in other words, the operation has gotten halfway to the goal of a 100 percent graduation or transfer rate. How Freedman used the Web and instructional technology to accomplish that, and how Ivy Bridge and the example it’s setting could change the world of higher education, are the subjects I am exploring here.

First a bit on Freedman’s background in education, which, as he jokes, “started before I was born.” His father Stuart Freedman is a respected particle physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, and his mother is a university administrator. Growing up in that atmosphere, he says, gave him “two things that are important in this business: a passion for providing access to high-quality higher education, and a fundamental understanding of the culture of higher ed.”

Immediately after graduating from the University of Chicago in 1999, Freedman started a company called Academic Engine, which built natural-language Q&A software designed to help colleges recruit applicants. “It was like an Ask Jeeves for the admissions office,” Freedman says. In 2004 the startup was acquired by Hobsons, a print publisher formerly focused on university guides, and its technology became the core of Hobsons’ recruitment management services platform. Hobsons is still the leader in that area today, powering online marketing and the student application process for at least a quarter of U.S. universities.

Freedman stayed at Hobsons through 2007. It was around that time, he says, that he first became aware of a puzzling paradox. Community college enrollment was skyrocketing, even before the recession had driven many people out of the workplace and back to school. But at the same time, four-year colleges were having a huge retention problem. To replace all of their disappearing freshmen and sophomores and the tuition they paid, four-year schools needed to bring in more juniors from community colleges. Nationally, however, very few community college students were successfully making the transfer.

“It struck me as a big problem,” says Freedman. “All of these green lights were going off about an opportunity to do something. I looked into it, and I thought that almost all of the fundamental issues about why students weren’t successful in their goal to go to a four-year institution were solvable.”

There are at least four big problems with the nation’s community college system, in Freedman’s view. First, communities are asking too much of them. “Junior colleges” were invented in the early twentieth century as vocational schools, intended to prepare young people for industrial trades. But by the 1970s they had also come to be seen as feeders for four-year colleges, training students in general-education subjects like history, calculus, and psychology. “That’s like having a fine-dining restaurant, a health food store, and a fast-food restaurant all in the same building,” Freedman says. The fact that community colleges are serving “very different constituencies” means that the students headed for four-year schools—the ones who need the most focused academic environment, in other words—get shortchanged.

Second, it just isn’t practical to expect 18- to 20-year-olds who don’t live on campus to show up in class at 8:00 a.m. every day, or even 8:00 p.m., Freedman says. “They are balancing a lot of work-life stuff,” he says. “We’re not talking about the suburban 18-year-old who can take four years and go off to frat parties and live in a dorm. There’s a heavy sorting cost to having to be on campus at a particular time.”

Third, many students at two-year institutions are the first people in their families ever to pursue higher education. Social scientists, Freedman says, have found that the biggest predictor of success in college “is having a relationship with somebody who has been to college, like a friend or a family member. It’s about mentorship and having a shoulder to cry on.” When students don’t have those relationships, their success rates plummet.

Finally, there’s a mismatch between the academic credit systems used by two-year and four-year institutions. “In a lot of states, students might get accepted [by four-year schools], but their credits aren’t accepted,” he says. To earn back the lost credits, the students who do transfer have to spend, on average, an entire added semester in class—and for students who are financial or academic edge cases to begin with, that extra semester can become a big deterrent to finishing at all. (Freedman hastens to add that this isn’t as much of a problem in California, where state laws provide for a “very elegant system of articulation” between two-year and four-year schools.)

None of the approaches that Altius is using to combat these problems is, by itself, all that original or revolutionary. But together, they seem to be working.

You can solve the first two problems, Freedman says, simply by teaching courses online. That gets students out of the cafeteria-style community college setting and into a curriculum specifically focused on helping them master the general-education material they’ll need to cope well at a four-year institution. It also lets them complete course work at times and places that fit into their complex lives. There is structure in Ivy Bridge’s academic calendar—terms last seven weeks, and every course is built around weekly reading, group discussions, and homework assignments—but if students want, says Freedman, they can do all their work the night before the due date each week.

To address the mentorship issue, Altius has developed a new program Freedman calls “success coaching.” This may be the company’s single biggest innovation. “Every student in our program gets an individual relationship with an academic advisor, career counselor, and career coach all rolled into one,” says Freedman. “It’s somebody to help with study skills, work-life balance, somebody to be that friend.” Each Ivy Bridge student’s success coach stays in regular contact via phone, e-mail, instant message, or Facebook throughout their time in the program. The coaches help students meet weekly goals, and they’re also the backstop when students start to feel overwhelmed.

Infused into the coaching program—and into the whole Ivy Bridge curriculum, in fact—is a philosophy of learning called the “growth mindset.” First developed in a 2006 book by Stanford social psychologist Carol Dweck, this boils down to the idea that everyone’s brain is fundamentally plastic, and that students will have more success building their academic skills if they believe that their brains can grow into it. Explains Freedman, “There really is no such thing as being ‘good at math’ or ‘bad at math.’ It’s just how much effort you put into it. What’s interesting is that if you can get people to believe that’s true, it changes their behavior around school. They no longer look at a bad grade as a signal that they are stupid, but as feedback on their progress.”

Altius takes the growth mindset so seriously that all Ivy Bridge students are required to begin their studies with an orientation course that teaches it. “The first step is to convince them that it’s possible,” says Freedman. “Second, we have to make sure faculty are reinforcing it and engaging with students in a way the reflects the philosophy that it’s all about brain development, not about skill level at any moment in time.”

The final piece of the Ivy Bridge formula is purely an administrative one, but it makes a big difference in the way students plan their studies. It’s the “articulation agreements” that Altius and Tiffin have negotiated with 78 four-year colleges and universities around the country, including names like Bowling Green State University, Valparaiso University, George Mason University, and several SUNY campuses. The agreements differ by school, but basically, if an Ivy Bridge student meets a particular school’s GPA requirement—typically a B average—then they’re in, and all their credits count against the new school’s graduation requirements.

There are no quotas at the partner institutions, so Ivy Bridge students aren’t competing against one another for access to the top schools. But the best schools on the list do have higher GPA requirements, which serves as a useful motivator, according to Freedman. “Part of why we are having better success is that our coaches can remind students, ‘Hey, you got a C minus, and with a little work Valparaiso or a lot of other good schools are open to you.’ That’s definitely a lure.”

Ivy Bridge’s professors and coaches include Tiffin faculty, Altius employees, and outside contractors. A huge amount of the focus at Altius is on instructional design, which generally means taking courses developed by Tiffin faculty and translating them into a form that can be distributed online. (Altius partnered with Tiffin on Ivy Bridge precisely because it needed a source of general-education content, Freedman says; 115 of the company’s 137 employees are based in Toledo, an hour north of the university.) Ivy Bridge students currently participate in courses via a commercial learning management system from Pearson, but Freedman says Altius is in the process of changing over to an open-source platform called Moodle.

How much does Ivy Bridge cost? Students pay $315 per credit-hour, which translates into about $9,000 a year or $18,000 for the entire program. That’s more than most community colleges charge, Freedman acknowledges, but he says roughly 85 percent of Ivy Bridge students receive some sort of tuition subsidy such as Pell grants or student loans.

One puzzle about Ivy Bridge is that Altius is implementing so many strategies at once that it’s hard to know which ones are most important for the program’s success, or which are most replicable in other contexts. When I asked Freedman whether Altius had studied student success rates in a scientific way, I got a surprising answer. “That’s not really our job,” he said. “Our job is to have better results.” He’s apparently convinced that the online element, the success coaching, the growth mindset, and the articulation agreements are parts of an indivisible package. “If other people want to pick and choose the components we are doing and figure out which ones are providing impact, that’s fine, but we’re not going to be the ones to do that,” he says.

Altius is, however, gathering data on the students who still aren’t graduating or transferring to a four-year school. “We are not successful for 40 percent of the students who start with us, and even though that’s way better than the industry averages, it’s not great, and in my opinion we need to do better,” Freedman says. The leading reasons why students drift away from Ivy Bridge, he says, are family problems, job changes, and—perhaps most surprising—technology challenges. “We can teach a lot of things very quickly, but if they don’t have the skills to navigate a browser, it’s hard to teach those. That is a prerequisite concept,” says Freedman.

Also, some students simply don’t have the computer and Web access they need to succeed with online coursework. “If you ask a student ‘Do you have a computer?’ they will say yes, when they really mean that their brother 10 miles down the road has a computer,” Freedman says. “That doesn’t mean they can be on it 15 hours a week. We lose students that way.”

But there could be an elegant solution to that problem. Freedman says Altius is working on plans to supply every Ivy Bridge student with an inexpensive, Google Chrome-based notebook computer that would arrive pre-loaded with all the browser bookmarks, e-textbooks, and course materials they need for the semester. “We are not there yet, but it really is getting to the point where the cost of the technology is not the barrier,” Freedman says. As bandwidth and memory get cheaper, he says, Altius will also be able to experiment with richer forms of online instruction.

I put it to Freedman that if students have to maintain a certain GPA to take advantage of the automatic admission to the partner four-year schools, and if the best schools have higher GPA requirements, it might create an incentive for professors to inflate students’ grades, in order to increase Ivy Bridge’s overall transfer rate. He acknowledges that grade inflation is a danger—but says the company is working on a deterrent. “At a high level if we send a student to a partner university who is not ready for the academic rigor of their program we could lose the university as a partner,” Freedman says. “That creates a solid institutional incentive to help students learn, not just pass them on to a school where they will drop out. That said, I think the combined tasks of teaching and grading is a conflict of interest. A teacher is supposed to affect the gathering of knowledge; it is impossible to judge how well they are doing if they also assess the level of knowledge.  To combat this problem we are moving towards a model where teaching and grading are handled by different people.”

Over the next 18 months, Freedman wants to grow Ivy Bridge from its current enrollment of 1,800 to the 5,000 mark, and within three to five years, he thinks it can grow to 30,000. In the big picture, Freedman thinks there are hundreds of thousands of students who could benefit from technology that, as he puts it, “narrows the intent-success gap in higher education.” The Ivy Bridge model might even carry over to four-year institutions, Freedman says, where much of the general-education instruction that fills the first two years could easily be offloaded to an online platform, freeing more faculty to concentrate on teaching more advanced third- and fourth-year courses in specific majors. And the success coaching might help to increase four-year colleges’ retention rates.

But all of that is still in the future. “We look at ourselves as the Netflix of education,” Freedman sums up. It may not sound at first like a flattering metaphor, but he explains it this way: “Netflix knew from the beginning that they wanted to stream content over the Internet. But they were the only ones smart enough to realize that the current market was about sorting DVDs, and that if you could win that, you would be the one in position to innovate on new models. We are very much doing the same thing. We’re innovating around the edges of the current problem and providing a meaningfully better experience—and hoping that puts us in a position to be more disruptive.”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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2 responses to “Altius Education’s Ivy Bridge Disrupts Community College Through Technology”

  1. Milan Moravec says:

    Regretably University of California Chancellor Birgeneau is an ‘altius’ leader. He believes he is above it all and does what he wishes, consequences be dammed. Just how widespread is the budget crisis at University of California Berkeley? University of California Chancellor Robert J Birgeneau’s ($500,000 salary) eight-year fiscal track record is dismal indeed. He would like to blame the politicians, since they stopped giving him every dollar he has asked for, and the state legislators do share some responsibility for the financial crisis. But not in the sense he means.
    A competent chancellor would have been on top of identifying inefficiencies in the system and then crafting a plan to fix them. Competent oversight by the Board of Regents and the legislature would have required him to provide data on problems and on what steps he was taking to solve them. Instead, every year Birgeneau would request a budget increase, the regents would agree to it, and the legislature would provide. The hard questions were avoided by all concerned, and the problems just piled up to $150 million of inefficiencies….until there was no money left.
    It’s not that Birgeneau was unaware that there were, in fact, waste and inefficiencies in the system. Faculty and staff have raised issues with senior management, but when they failed to see relevant action taken, they stopped. Finally, Birgeneau ($500,000 salary) engaged some expensive ($3 million) consultants, Bain & Company, to tell him what he should have been able to find out from the bright, engaged people in his own organization.
    In short, there is plenty of blame to go around. Merely cutting out inefficiencies will not have the effect desired. But you never want a serious crisis to go to waste. An opportunity now exists for the UC President, Chairman of the UC Board of Regents Gould, California Legislators to jolt Cal back to life, applying some simple oversight check-and-balance management practices. Increasing the budget is not enough; transforming senior management is necessary. The faculty, Academic Senate, Cal. Alumni, financial donors, benefactors await Cal senior management’s transformation.

    UC Berkeley public reprimand, censure: NCAA places Chancellor Birgeneau’s men’s basketball program on probation
    The author,who has 35 years’ consulting experience, has taught at University of California Berkeley, where he was able to observe the culture and the way senior management work.
    (UC Berkeley ranking tumbles from 2nd best. The reality of UC Berkeley relative decline is clear. In 2004, for example, the London-based Times Higher Education ranked UC Berkeley the second leading research university in the world, just behind Harvard; in 2009 that ranking had tumbled to 39th place. By 2011 the ranking had not returned to 2nd best)