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Marlboro College's campus

Courtesy of Marlboro College

Founding a new institution during a global pandemic might not seem like the right move, but Seth Andrew thinks this is the perfect time for change.

Andrew, the founder of social venture incubator Democracy Builders, announced Thursday that the nonprofit is purchasing the 500-acre campus of Marlboro College in Vermont to start a college program to begin in September. After suffering declining enrollments and revenues, Marlboro last year chose to close its campus and merge with Emerson College in Boston.

The campus will be used for Andrew's next venture, Degrees of Freedom, which aims to create a hybrid late high school, early college experience for students who are low income and the first in their families to attend college.

"It’s an opportunity to provide a new model for higher education that doesn’t exist for most kids," Andrew said. "In this very unpredictable time, we think there will be even more demand."

Democracy Builders has experience in K-12 education with its charter school network, Democracy Prep, which serves mostly lower-income and urban students.​​

"Our team at Degrees of Freedom is a seasoned group of education veterans who want to reimagine what higher ed looks like," Andrew said. "This is really a new way of thinking about college and the transition from high school."

A run-in with one of the charter school's alums inspired Andrew to look beyond high school to serve students. He bumped into a former Democracy Prep student on the New York City subway and asked where he worked. When the student said he worked at Amazon, Andrew assumed he was working on the technology side. But the student said he was delivering for the company.

He had a bachelor's degree, Andrew said, but he had transferred between several community colleges and a private institution, racking up debt, and the quality of his education hadn't helped him succeed.

Andrew wants to steer students away from that outcome with a new model tailored to needy students.

How Will It Work?

Democracy Builders recruited a design team of people who were first-generation college students to ensure the program was built not just for those students, but also with input from former students.

Jamie McCoy, an alum of Democracy Prep and a teacher at one of the schools, is a member of the design team.

She is writing a book about her own experiences as a first-generation student and thinks this program could help keep students from falling through the cracks after graduating high school.

"Something here is being missed where we’re coming out the other end with a credential but not the freedom," she said. "We manage to get kids through, but something’s being missed."

Several aspects of the program will help address issues that prevent students from succeeding, she said.

One is its cultural responsiveness, she said. The academic year will be broken down into trimesters. Students will come to the Marlboro campus for two weeks each trimester for a total of six weeks per year. During those weeks, they'll be oriented to the trimester's courses and meet with faculty and staff members, as well as their peers.

Students will be placed in cohorts, which will rotate through the on-campus portion of the program. The campus can serve about 300 students, so Andrew estimates they can cycle through about 1,000 to 1,500 students per year with the low-residency rotation model.

Then they'll return home.

"This population has a really strong tie to home," McCoy said. "I felt really weird being away."

Many first-generation college students also have responsibilities beyond coursework. Some are caring for siblings or parents, and others need to work to help support the household, she said.

While at home, students also will begin apprenticeships related to their majors. The college will subsidize that program to entice employers and ensure students are paid. They'll work at those during the day and then participate in synchronous online learning at night. The program intends to use technology, like virtual reality, augmented reality and artificial intelligence to make the online work as engaging as possible, according to Andrew.

Gaining experience in a field is the only way students can really figure out what they want to do, McCoy said. It makes them more mindful of their interests so they don't waste time pursuing majors or courses that will lead to a job they wouldn't enjoy.

The other important piece is the cost, she said. For many low-income students, the program would be free.

Andrew expects students who are eligible for federal Pell Grants won't incur any debt from the program. The total cost to attend will be $9,000 per year, and the maximum Pell Grant for each trimester should cover those costs, he said.

The on-ramps for students will also be different. While students from everywhere will be welcome, Degrees of Freedom plans to partner with charter schools to give students the opportunity to take some courses while in high school.

Students at high schools that partner with the program will be able to start courses in 11th grade and finish one or two courses during their last two years of high school, Andrew said. Those students will have more "wiggle room" to explore electives or take a trimester off to focus solely on an apprenticeship.

Students from partner high schools who don't start the program in the 11th grade and students from high schools that aren't partners also will be able to enroll in Degrees of Freedom. They just won't have earned credits before college.

The model could resolve the chasm between high school and college, said Nick Mathern, vice president of K-12 partnerships for Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit that supports student success at community colleges. The possibility for students to start a program in high school, get accustomed to thinking of themselves as college students and then transition seamlessly is ideal, he said.

"As a leader and practitioner in the early-college field, I am really excited about this model," Mathern said.

The largest challenge for the program could be the online learning piece, he said. Using some face-to-face instruction and hands-on apprenticeships will ameliorate engagement issues, but many low-income and first-generation students simply don't have the tech infrastructure or physical space for private online learning at home. Using advanced technology like virtual reality also will require the program to provide equipment to students and ensure their internet access is reliable enough to handle it, he said.

Degrees of Freedom also is not yet a community college. The leaders are still working toward getting accreditation through the New England Commission of Higher Education. If they can't get probationary accreditation in time for their September opening, Andrew plans to apply through the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, a national accreditor. As a last resort, the program could partner with another institution for incubating accreditation, he said.

Mathern was happy to hear the program's creators have two backup plans for accreditation, but he emphasized that the process is not easy to overcome.

"The odds will be, if not against them, at least daunting," he said. "That said, this is a really relevant model."

‘Modular and Inclusive’

While the students will earn an associate degree in the program, Andrew is less concerned about being defined as a two-year institution or an early college program.

"We are less committed to the traditional notions of an associate degree in two years, a bachelor's degree in four years, a high school degree in four years," Andrew said. "We think the metrics of success should be students' long-term success. Time should be the variable, not the constant."

In the future, he hopes to serve students across the country with multiple physical campuses. Those locations would likely follow in a similar vein to the Marlboro deal, where the program will purchase a campus that was unable to survive on its own and preserve some of its traditions but bring it into the modern era, Andrew said.

Marlboro College itself isn't going away, though. The Board of Trustees is in the final stages of contracting with Emerson College to create a liberal arts program staffed with Marlboro faculty and attended by Marlboro students, said Dick Saudek, the chair of the Marlboro board.

A committee tasked with recommending a buyer for the campus to the board chose Degrees of Freedom, Saudek said, not necessarily because it was the highest bid but because it was the most compelling option.

"We are hopeful that they will succeed at this. Any time you do what they do, it’s a heavy lift. We recognize that," he said. "But we are also intrigued with the idea that the campus will be used for this purpose instead of, say, developed for housing or a tourist attraction."

The Degrees of Freedom program also ensures that the Marlboro campus, its trail network and facilities will be maintained and enjoyed in the future.

Andrew admits the coronavirus pandemic has complicated his plans for the program. But Degrees of Freedom also has some advantages.

It can start with smaller cohorts so students can live in single rooms in residence halls. Those who attend from the northeast region can arrive by Amtrak and then immediately go to the college in the small Vermont town, where they can be quarantined.

COVID-19 has also made obvious that higher education needs options like this, Andrew said. Students need human contact. What is being used for online teaching right now isn't adequate, he said. Students can take a relatively small risk on this program rather than waiting at home for campuses to reopen. He said it makes more sense than paying tens of thousands of dollars for a residential degree that will likely be online or vastly different.

"While we’ve been thinking about and building these plans for far longer than COVID existed, the global pandemic has only highlighted that our model is exactly what higher education needs now," Andrew said. "In this moment of extreme uncertainty, we are much more affordable, flexible, modular and inclusive than a traditional college degree."

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