As college costs rise and traditional student attendance continues to fall, some institutions are creating niche colleges to accommodate the needs of specific groups of nontraditional students, panelists said at an American Council on Education (ACE) event held Wednesday.
Panelists discussed a case study by ACE’s Louis Soares and Vickie Choitz, “A College Unbound: Lessons on Innovation from a Student-Driven College’s Journey Through Regional Accreditation,” which dives into a decade-long process to create a nonprofit college in urban Rhode Island called College Unbound (CU).
CU was created to fill a need in higher education, shaping the curriculum and institution around the needs of low-income, nontraditional students, according to Adam Bush, the provost of CU.
According to Soares and Choitz’ case study, 79% of CU students are people of color, 80% are parents, 80% are employed full-time, and all students are working to complete their first degree.
“Historically, higher education hasn’t done the most for students with this profile,” said Soares.
CU is committed to keeping costs low while keeping the quality of the education high, according to Dennis Littky, the president of CU. The current cost of tuition is less than $10,000 per year, he added. Students complete their degrees on average in 2 1/2 years due to CU’s requirement that all students must have transferred at least nine credits to enroll.
As of fall of this year, students at CU are able to apply for Title IV financial aid programs, including Pell Grants, student loans, work-study and other programs. Tuition costs are estimated based on Pell Grant levels plus $1,000; 74% of CU students are Pell Grant recipients according to Soares and Choitz. The college also awards every student a $1,100 merit scholarship, leaving approximately $3,000 for students to cover by working, applying for scholarships or exploring alternative loans or income share agreements.
A key aspect of CU’s college affordability is to keep overhead costs low. The college does this, in part, by leasing spaces for classrooms instead of owning property.
“CU saves money with streamlined facility and staffing costs, which allows it to invest more in
small class sizes and active advising with small advisee loads,” Soares and Choitz wrote.
In addition to keeping costs low, retention is a key factor in CU’s academic model. Thirty-eight percent of CU students have attended two colleges before CU, making it more likely they’ve already accumulated student loan debts but don’t have the higher-level career opportunities to pay off those loans, David Bergeron, senior fellow for postsecondary education policy at the Center for American Progress, explained.
The major risk for any startup college, Bergeron said, is that it will ultimately fail, leaving students with loans, no degree, having exhausted their Pell Grant limits. Bergeron argued the only way to truly make students whole would be to forgive student loans and restore Pell Grants.
One potential solution to mitigate this risk is for colleges to set aside designated funds that can be used to pay back the cost of loans for non-degree earning students in the event that the college fails, Jim Purcell, the executive director of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, pointed out. He also offered another alternative in the form of institutional risk-sharing where another institution will agree to accept the credits of students from the failed college so they may transfer and continue pursuing a degree or credential.
Publication Date: 10/3/2019