Altius Education’s Ivy Bridge Disrupts Community College Through Technology
I have a theory about what makes the best entrepreneurs so good: each one is driven by a conviction that he’s discovered some deep flaw in the world. This problem sticks in his craw as if it were a personal affront, and he simply can’t rest until he’s done something to fix it.
The problem that offends Paul Freedman is this: About 75 percent of the 3.4 million students enrolled in community colleges in the United States say they intend to transfer eventually to a four-year university—but only 20 percent ever do.
That is a horrendous reality, if you think about it. It means that nearly a million people every year are dropping out of the higher-education system. For one reason or another, they’re giving up on their dreams of obtaining a four-year degree and all of the economic benefits known to go with it.
It’s conceivable, as a few commentators have recently dared to suggest, that some of these students are simply unfit for the rigors of college life. But Freedman thinks this group is very small, if it exists at all. He believes that the “success gap” is rooted not in students’ personal failings, but in the very way community colleges are structured. And he created Altius Education to show that there’s a different way.
Altius—the word is Latin for “higher”—is headquartered in San Francisco and is backed by nearly $27 million in venture funding from Spark Capital, Maveron, and Charles River Ventures. The company is the co-owner, with Tiffin University in Tiffin, OH, of a for-profit online degree program called Ivy Bridge College. Unlike the University of Phoenix—which bestows associate’s, bachelor’s, and graduate degrees, and is by far the best-known online higher-ed provider—Ivy Bridge has one goal, and that is to get its students into a traditional four-year university. In fact, if Ivy Bridge students maintain the required GPA, they’re guaranteed admission to one of 78 four-year institutions with which Altius and Tiffin have transfer agreements.
Ivy Bridge enrolled its first students in August 2008, and has served only 1,800 students overall, so it’s barely old enough to have much of a record. But so far, says president and CEO Freedman, “It’s looking like about 60 percent of the students who start our program end up graduating with a degree or transferring to a four-year school, compared to 20 percent for the industry average.” In two and a half years, in other words, the operation has gotten halfway to the goal of a 100 percent graduation or transfer rate. How Freedman used the Web and instructional technology to accomplish that, and how Ivy Bridge and the example it’s setting could change the world of higher education, are the subjects I am exploring here.
First a bit on Freedman’s background in education, which, as he jokes, “started before I was born.” His father Stuart Freedman is a respected particle physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, and his mother is a university administrator. Growing up in that atmosphere, he says, gave him “two things that are important in this business: a passion for providing access to high-quality higher education, and a fundamental understanding of the culture of higher ed.”
Immediately after graduating from the University of Chicago in 1999, Freedman started a company called Academic Engine, which built natural-language Q&A software designed to help colleges recruit applicants. “It was like an Ask Jeeves for the admissions office,” Freedman says. In 2004 the startup was acquired by Hobsons, a print publisher formerly focused on university guides, and its technology became the core of Hobsons’ recruitment management services platform. Hobsons is still the leader in that area today, powering online marketing and the student application process for at least a quarter of U.S. universities.
Freedman stayed at Hobsons through 2007. It was around that time, he says, that he first became aware of a puzzling paradox. Community college enrollment was skyrocketing, even before the recession had driven many people out of the workplace and back to school. But at the same time, four-year colleges were having a huge retention problem. To replace all of their disappearing … Next Page »