Altius Education’s Ivy Bridge Disrupts Community College Through Technology

3/2/11Follow @wroush

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 »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Milan Moravec

    Regretably University of California Chancellor Birgeneau is an ‘altius’ leader. He believes he is above it all and does what he wishes, consequences be dammed. Just how widespread is the budget crisis at University of California Berkeley? University of California Chancellor Robert J Birgeneau’s ($500,000 salary) eight-year fiscal track record is dismal indeed. He would like to blame the politicians, since they stopped giving him every dollar he has asked for, and the state legislators do share some responsibility for the financial crisis. But not in the sense he means.
    A competent chancellor would have been on top of identifying inefficiencies in the system and then crafting a plan to fix them. Competent oversight by the Board of Regents and the legislature would have required him to provide data on problems and on what steps he was taking to solve them. Instead, every year Birgeneau would request a budget increase, the regents would agree to it, and the legislature would provide. The hard questions were avoided by all concerned, and the problems just piled up to $150 million of inefficiencies….until there was no money left.
    It’s not that Birgeneau was unaware that there were, in fact, waste and inefficiencies in the system. Faculty and staff have raised issues with senior management, but when they failed to see relevant action taken, they stopped. Finally, Birgeneau ($500,000 salary) engaged some expensive ($3 million) consultants, Bain & Company, to tell him what he should have been able to find out from the bright, engaged people in his own organization.
    In short, there is plenty of blame to go around. Merely cutting out inefficiencies will not have the effect desired. But you never want a serious crisis to go to waste. An opportunity now exists for the UC President, Chairman of the UC Board of Regents Gould, California Legislators to jolt Cal back to life, applying some simple oversight check-and-balance management practices. Increasing the budget is not enough; transforming senior management is necessary. The faculty, Academic Senate, Cal. Alumni, financial donors, benefactors await Cal senior management’s transformation.

    UC Berkeley public reprimand, censure: NCAA places Chancellor Birgeneau’s men’s basketball program on probation
    The author,who has 35 years’ consulting experience, has taught at University of California Berkeley, where he was able to observe the culture and the way senior management work.
    (UC Berkeley ranking tumbles from 2nd best. The reality of UC Berkeley relative decline is clear. In 2004, for example, the London-based Times Higher Education ranked UC Berkeley the second leading research university in the world, just behind Harvard; in 2009 that ranking had tumbled to 39th place. By 2011 the ranking had not returned to 2nd best)

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