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An adult learner reads to her children in her spare time

Hybrid Colleges: A New Model for Today’s Student

Dulari Gandhi

For many aspiring college students, it can be hard to see a realistic pathway to a degree. Roughly three out of every four undergraduates are considered nontraditional college students, a bit of a misnomer when you consider that the majority of students today are on their own financially, often caregivers or parents who are employed full time. For those balancing work and family responsibilities alongside their education, it can feel like a stretch to find the time, money, and support system to manage it all.

With the knowledge, professional skills, and network gained through higher education, and the opportunities unlocked by a college diploma, graduates are able to completely transform their careers. Over the course of a lifetime, bachelor’s degree holders experience greater job stability and higher earning potential than workers without a degree. But despite this lifechanging potential, more than 36 million Americans have some college credits but no degree. The barriers along the college journey can seem insurmountable — and with a traditional pathway, they often are.

The Hybrid College Approach

Today, few students have the privilege of focusing exclusively on their education all the way until graduation, whether they are entering college straight out of high school or enrolling as an adult learner. For most, responsibilities outside the classroom are just a fact of life. At its core, the hybrid college model is confronting this reality head-on by making college fit into a student’s life rather than the other way around. Through flexible online coursework, affordable degree programs, and personal support along the way, hybrid colleges put the student at the center. These programs aim to make college possible for anyone willing to take on the journey.

It all starts with an online program of competency-based education, focused on what a student learns rather than the amount of time they spend in a classroom. Students have flexibility to move at their own pace, and those who have completed some credits in the past can jump right in where they left off. With financial aid coaching and a focus on affordability, hybrid colleges ensure that students graduate with minimal debt and that the cost of tuition doesn’t put a degree out of reach.

Hybrid colleges pair virtual coursework with personal support that recognizes the challenges a student may experience in college. That’s where the “hybrid” comes from, as this support may be in-person or remote. Coaches are available for tutoring and academic guidance, but their support also extends far beyond the classroom to address practical needs and offer connections to local resources. Need help finding childcare? Tips to improve time management skills? Encouragement from someone who believes in you? This level of personal support can make all the difference for a student’s performance and overall persistence.

Some programs also offer career connections, bridging deep knowledge of the local job market with the professional goals of each student. Hybrid colleges can build strong relationships with local employers to help develop the workforce they are seeking, while at the same time helping students gain the skills and experience to qualify for in-demand careers.

Creating a New Pathway to Graduation

Today, there are just over a dozen hybrid college programs across the country, including our partners at Duet and PelotonU which are advancing this model in Greater Boston, Central Texas, and across the United States. According to the Hybrid College Network, a collection of nonprofits, together these organizations have achieved persistence rates of 78%. That means that nearly 8 out of 10 students that enroll in these programs end up earning a degree, compared to an average of only 6 in 10 at public universities. And it’s no surprise that this approach exceeds national averages. It’s all about understanding each student and the responsibilities and priorities they are balancing — as a parent, an employee, an individual — and making it possible for them to them to create their own path to success.

The pandemic has underscored the importance of this flexible model. College students balancing full-time jobs also became caregivers for family members with the virus. They began overseeing virtual school and managing daily life without safe or reliable childcare. As businesses across the country closed their doors, some students lost their primary source of income and needed to prioritize finding a new job or taking on extra hours at work. At a traditional university, they may have been forced to drop a class or withdraw for the semester. But with the flexibility to scale up or down, and to access critical resources, hybrid colleges can make it possible for students to stay on track.

Traditional college models seem to assume that a student’s life is just getting started, and that responsibilities are waiting on the other side of graduation. But those students who are juggling family and work and life outside the classroom are among those with the most to gain from a college degree. Through the hybrid college model, higher education can deliver on its promise for these students. We hope it’s an approach that will grow exponentially to help thousands, someday millions of students to achieve their postsecondary goals.