There is nothing subtle about the home page  of a new venture unveiled Thursday. "$1 Trillion U.S. Student Loan Debt" it screams, with the dollar figure in large yellow type. It then displays the average price of four years at public and private colleges ($71,000 and $158,000, respectively), and follows with data showing that more than a quarter of all bachelor's degree-holders start out at a community college.
The latest bare-knuckled promotional campaign for the nation's two-year colleges? Not exactly, but not wildly off, either.
A new investor-backed company, Quad Learning,  is teaming up with community colleges to build a national network of honors programs with a collaborative curriculum that they envision giving students an affordable, high-quality associate degree and helping them transfer to topnotch colleges and universities.
The network, American Honors,  seeks to tap into national concern about the affordability of higher education and interest in lower-priced, high-quality educational alternatives. The venture joins several others announced in recent years -- including Altius Education's Ivy Bridge College and Fidelis Education -- that use private capital to team with existing institutions to create new institutions or new programs  focused on the first two years of college.
American Honors is being piloted this academic year at Community Colleges of Spokane and at three campuses of Ivy Tech Community College, in Indiana. The institutions plan to admit full cohorts of about 160 students each next fall. Students enrolled in the program -- which is delivered in an online, synchronous format, but with extracurricular and other face time -- pay more than they would to enroll in the traditional academic programs at their institutions, but significantly less than they would at most public and private four-year alternatives.
When the Spokane colleges formally launch the program next fall, students admitted to the program (through a selective process) will pay $5,985 for the year, compared to the in-state tuition rate of $3,921. (Quad Learning/American Honors gets its funds in payments from the colleges for the technology and coaching services it provides.)
For those extra dollars, students have much smaller classes, significantly more interaction with academic advisers and coaches from their colleges and from American Honors, and much more help in college guidance to help them prepare to transfer once they're done, said Lisa Avery, dean of American Honors and global education at Community Colleges of Spokane.
"Our ultimate goal is helping students make a kind of jump that they wouldn't necessarily have been able to otherwise," says David Finegold, who left a job as senior vice president for lifelong learning and strategic growth at Rutgers University to become the chief academic officer at Quad Learning. "But to do that, we're trying to build the best honors program that we can offer, full stop, for the first two years of college."
Quad Learning, which announced Thursday that it had received $11 million in financing from several investor groups, was formed by Phil Bronner, a former venture capital investor, and Chris Romer, a former Colorado state senator and the son of the state's former governor, Roy Romer. The Romer connection is how Community Colleges of Spokane got involved; its chancellor, Christine Johnson, was previously president at Community College of Denver.
"They came to Dr. Johnson more than a year ago," Avery said, "and we saw it as a way of bolstering new enrollments of highly qualified students, given the massive tuition increases" that many of Washington's public universities have instituted amid sharp state budget cutbacks. The Spokane colleges already had a very small honors program, but the pilot class of 48 students in the American Honors program included three high school valedictorians, Avery said. "These are people who would have had a lot of other choices, and they came here."
The curriculum will be developed jointly by the community colleges in the network, but the learning materials will be adapted by individual colleges and taught by their own faculty members. Because students will take a common set of courses, and the programs will use a common set of learning outcomes, said Quad Learning's Finegold, four-year universities to which American Honors students might wish to transfer "will only have to articulate with one curriculum," potentially smoothing the path for them.
Several elements of the American Honors project have the potential to set off alarm bells. Those troubled by the involvement of profit-seeking entities in public-sector services may raise an eyebrow over the involvement of Quad Learning, and Avery acknowledged that some faculty members at Spokane have "had a bit of heartburn over the differential pricing" of the honors program. But she said union members have been involved in the project from the very start, and that they have been largely assuaged by "the opportunity to build new enrollments" and the fact that the differential cost can be covered by financial aid.
Another advocate for the project is George Boggs, former president of the American Association of Community Colleges. He sits on Quad Learning's advisory panel, and said in an interview Thursday that he was excited by the possibility that American Honors could help community colleges attract more great students and help them transfer to the best universities.
"This is not a for-profit college, and it will not compete with community colleges," Boggs said. "Their whole business model is to partner with the community colleges, and all the community college folks I've talked to have been pretty excited about it."