Altius Education’s Ivy Bridge Disrupts Community College Through Technology

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career coach all rolled into one,” says Freedman. “It’s somebody to help with study skills, work-life balance, somebody to be that friend.” Each Ivy Bridge student’s success coach stays in regular contact via phone, e-mail, instant message, or Facebook throughout their time in the program. The coaches help students meet weekly goals, and they’re also the backstop when students start to feel overwhelmed.

Infused into the coaching program—and into the whole Ivy Bridge curriculum, in fact—is a philosophy of learning called the “growth mindset.” First developed in a 2006 book by Stanford social psychologist Carol Dweck, this boils down to the idea that everyone’s brain is fundamentally plastic, and that students will have more success building their academic skills if they believe that their brains can grow into it. Explains Freedman, “There really is no such thing as being ‘good at math’ or ‘bad at math.’ It’s just how much effort you put into it. What’s interesting is that if you can get people to believe that’s true, it changes their behavior around school. They no longer look at a bad grade as a signal that they are stupid, but as feedback on their progress.”

Altius takes the growth mindset so seriously that all Ivy Bridge students are required to begin their studies with an orientation course that teaches it. “The first step is to convince them that it’s possible,” says Freedman. “Second, we have to make sure faculty are reinforcing it and engaging with students in a way the reflects the philosophy that it’s all about brain development, not about skill level at any moment in time.”

The final piece of the Ivy Bridge formula is purely an administrative one, but it makes a big difference in the way students plan their studies. It’s the “articulation agreements” that Altius and Tiffin have negotiated with 78 four-year colleges and universities around the country, including names like Bowling Green State University, Valparaiso University, George Mason University, and several SUNY campuses. The agreements differ by school, but basically, if an Ivy Bridge student meets a particular school’s GPA requirement—typically a B average—then they’re in, and all their credits count against the new school’s graduation requirements.

There are no quotas at the partner institutions, so Ivy Bridge students aren’t competing against one another for access to the top schools. But the best schools on the list do have higher GPA requirements, which serves as a useful motivator, according to Freedman. “Part of why we are having better success is that our coaches can remind students, ‘Hey, you got a C minus, and with a little work Valparaiso or a lot of other good schools are open to you.’ That’s definitely a lure.”

Ivy Bridge’s professors and coaches include Tiffin faculty, Altius employees, and outside contractors. A huge amount of the focus at Altius is on instructional design, which generally means taking courses developed by Tiffin faculty and translating them into a form that can be distributed online. (Altius partnered with Tiffin on Ivy Bridge precisely because it needed a source of general-education content, Freedman says; 115 of the company’s 137 employees are based in Toledo, an hour north of the university.) Ivy Bridge students currently participate in courses via a commercial learning management system from Pearson, but Freedman says Altius is in the process of changing over to an open-source platform called Moodle.

How much does Ivy Bridge cost? Students pay $315 per credit-hour, which translates into about $9,000 a year or $18,000 for the entire program. That’s more than most community colleges charge, Freedman acknowledges, but he says roughly 85 percent of Ivy Bridge students receive some sort of tuition subsidy such as Pell grants or student loans.

One puzzle about Ivy Bridge is that Altius is implementing so many strategies at once that it’s hard to know which ones are most important for the program’s success, or … Next Page »

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

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