The latest model-busting higher education program comes from a novel partnership between a nonprofit college and a nonprofit organization, helped by a push (and some money) from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Portmont College at Mount St. Mary's, announced today, is a new venture designed to provide online associate degrees to students who have more "grit" than traditional academic credentials. The program is a partnership between MyCollege Foundation, a nonprofit that received $3 million from the Gates Foundation as part of a program of grants  for developing "breakthrough" learning models, and Mount St. Mary’s College, a Roman Catholic institution in Los Angeles with a focus on serving low-income and Latino students.
Dismayed by the achievement gap in American education, Srikant Vasan, founder and president of Portmont, set out to create a degree program that would be accessible to all students, regardless of academic background or finances. He chose Mount St. Mary's as a partner because he felt the college has a similar mission, one of access without sacrificing quality. He was also looking to join with an accredited institution to ensure that Portmont degrees would carry weight inside and outside of higher ed. Josh Jarrett, deputy director of postsecondary success for the Gates Foundation, notes that two nonprofits teaming up is a new model, but he anticipates it might create a path for others to follow.
For Mount St. Mary's, as for Vasan, the decision to join forces was fairly simple.
"We really care about those underrepresented students and providing them access to these quality education programs," said Ann McElaney-Johnson, president of Mount St. Mary's. "We're focused on access, affordability and quality, and we felt really strongly that we would be a good partner because we offer associate degree programs."
Mount St. Mary's faculty members provided advice on developing curriculums and working with traditionally underserved students, while Vasan, previously a senior program officer and entrepreneur-in-residence with the Gates Foundation, and his team provided innovative ideas about online education. Combining the expertise of the Mount St. Mary's faculty with a structured, supportive program, Vasan hopes to provide motivated students with a more meaningful credential than they might get elsewhere.
"Some research shows ... three out of four employers are essentially saying they're not too happy with the product they're getting from a community college," Vasan said. "Meanwhile, we as a higher ed sector are constantly giving them degrees and transcripts which don't speak to the kind of things they're looking for, like problem solving."
A Portmont degree, Vasan hopes, will be a testament to a student's ability as a learner and as a potential employee.
Each of Portmont's degree programs -- business administration, computer science, liberal arts and pre-science health -- is built around “core capabilities,” like critical thinking, teamwork, problem solving, and performance character. The core capabilities, a hallmark of the Portmont program, are taught and measured through projects and other tasks assigned during a student’s regular course of study. Vasan hopes the focus on the core capabilities throughout the Portmont curriculum will develop students who are prepared to enter a bachelor’s degree program or the work force, and will provide employers with a guarantee that they are getting competent employees.
Of course, the value of a Portmont degree will depend on the quality of the program’s graduates, which is why Vasan is dedicated to finding the students with the most motivation and, in his words, "grit."
The first test of grit will be the Launch Pad program, a free, three-week course focused on skills like time management and developing good habits. As the students move through the course, Portmont tracks their behavior and uses analytic models to predict their success. Students receive feedback in the form of a red, yellow or green signal; if, at the end, a student’s signal is green or yellow, he can enroll in a Portmont program.
“By selecting students like that, we’re enabling them to be surrounded by others in a culture of high achievement,” he said.
And the culture is important. Though Portmont courses will be delivered online, students will meet in person with other local students and a “success coach” at least once per eight-week session. Each local cohort will consist of about 15 students who enter the program at the same time; Vasan hopes to give students a support system they might lack at a community college, for example.
Students meet their cohort after completing the Launch Pad, in a program called Ignition, an in-person, intensive, one-week orientation in which students gain experience practicing the concepts learned in the Launch Pad course. Those concepts are later built on in one-credit courses (known, in case you're not getting the pattern, as "Lift Off and Soar") that all students take in their first two sessions.
Along with those courses, students take two to three courses per session focused on their degree program. Though students can choose their degree program, they don’t have much choice in the courses they take, as the programs are fairly prescriptive.
The courses themselves are flexible, however, and built around the idea of allowing faculty to teach, not lecture.
The lectures and online course content will be developed in advance of the college’s opening, Vasan said. A professor’s job, then, will be to use Portmont’s dashboard to monitor a student’s progress and to decide how and when to intervene. A professor could, for example, schedule a Skype meeting with a student she noticed was struggling, or could connect that student with another local student who had mastered that topic.
Professors will also be able to see how quickly students are moving through the course, which is important because students can move at different rates. Each course will assess student learning along the way, and a student will remain on a certain topic until he has mastered it. The idea, Vasan said, is to offer remediation as needed, but to allow students to move quickly through topics they may have an easier time with.
“Trying to create a really focused experience is a needed pathway in the larger higher ed landscape,” Jarrett said.
Portmont will launch in Denver, Colo., this winter, starting its first Launch Pad course on Dec. 10. It will offer several Ignition courses beginning in mid-January, and the first regular term starts March 4. Vasan plans to expand to San Francisco next, and anticipates being in five or six cities within two to three years.
The key to scaling the program up, he said, is that it is financially self-sufficient. Though Portmont is relying on philanthropic funds to get going, Vasan said the entire program was designed based on the principle of making education as financially accessible and efficient as possible. The total cost, $5,240 per year, is about equal to the amount of an annual Pell Grant, though Vasan says that is just coincidence.
Jarrett said he believes that something similar to Portmont, if not Portmont itself, could be scalable.
“The model itself could be something that teaches us all something about how to serve more students in a cost-effective way to get them through to their goal,” he said. “The broader point is that for the students who aren’t succeeding in higher ed today we need to really take seriously the explorations of more and different models for them.... The students that Portmont aims to serve are ones that we have not traditionally done a good job serving in this country. They’re the ones with 20 or 30 percent completion in community college. They’re often the ones that leave with debt and no credential.”