Online Initiative Launches to Aid Low-Income Students

A new initiative in online learning intending to help low-income adults achieve an associate’s degree is set to launch in Colorado and then California before expanding to selected cities nationwide. 

MyCollege Foundation is partnering with Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles in this program that aims to give students who are strong on grit and drive the chance to gain the skills and confidence to earn a two-year degree, without taking on extensive debt before advancing toward a bachelor’s degree.

Partly funded by a $3 million grant by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Portmont College at Mount St. Mary’s plans to offer four fields of study: business administration, computer science, liberal arts, and pre-health science. The concept is the brainchild of Portmount President Srikant Vasan, developed in part while he served as entrepreneur-in-residence at the Gates Foundation. 

The Portmont program starts with face-to-face instruction with professors during kick-off orientation, followed by online coursework. It will also have support services to ensure that students graduate.  

Students can transfer their credits to four-year institutions to complete a bachelor’s. Portmont will launch in Denver, followed by San Francisco. Classes in Denver start on March 4.

While the $5,240 per year price tag is higher than the average ($2,200) for Colorado community colleges, the cost of attending Portmont is significantly lower than studying at Mount St. Mary’s, an independent, Catholic liberal-arts women’s college. Tuition and fees there exceed $31,000 per year.

National figures show that student-loan debt has reached historic highs. About one in five households has debt tied to obtaining a degree. Compared with other demographic groups, a smaller percentage (31 percent) of Hispanics borrowed money to pay for school; the figures are 37 percent for whites and 35 percent for African-Americans, a national survey on How America Pays for College by the Sallie Mae Fund.

Still, the amount of money that students have borrowed to pay for college has ballooned. A new report indicates that 2011 college graduates had an average of $26,600 in student loans, about 5 percent higher than students who completed a degree program the previous year. Only six years ago, students were graduating with approximately $19,600 in student loans.

Here are specifics, excerpted from a Gates Foundation e-mail:

  • All-in costs of $5,240 per student per year to ensure that students graduate with low to no debt.

  • Focus on noncognitive factors like grit and motivation as the primary method of filtering incoming students.

  • Core-capabilities-based curriculum and measurement designed to advance skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, communications, information literacy, teamwork, performance character, and learning to learn.

  • Personalized learning environment that tracks mastery of course material.

  • Rigorous curriculum incorporating problem-based learning and social learning to increase student engagement and ensure relevance.

  • Prescriptive course sequencing and social- and problem-based learning approaches.

  • “Success Launch Process,” which goes beyond the cognitive topics typically addressed by college success courses and uses a series of four courses to develop intrapersonal and interpersonal skills correlated to work and life success.

  • Personal support network of success coaches, faculty, and peers so that each student benefits from tailored, proactive interventions using student-specific academic and behavioral data.

  • Technology platform offering visibility into key progress measures to students, faculty, and employers – includes holistic performance monitoring, historical reporting, and predictive analytics – enabling proactive, tailored interventions.

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