Breakthrough Models for College Completion

NGLC’s Wave IIIb challenges educators and innovators to demonstrate that learning science, technology, policy, and organizational processes advanced far enough to enable Associate’s and Bachelor’s degree programs to be delivered at a cost of $5,000 – our target goal –  per student per year, without sacrificing quality (in fact, enhancing it) and while getting more students to a degree.   

If we are to deliver high-quality degree programs at an affordable price and to the students who need them most, NGLC hypothesizes that personalized learning models that employ some or all of the following strategies will be required. They therefore provided the basis for this particular wave of NGLC investment. Applicant models were encouraged to:

  • Design learning experiences, assessment, and feedback around specific course and degree program learning outcomes, for both practical and deeper learning competencies
  • Employ learning science research to develop effective, targeted learning environments
  • Deploy blended or supported online learning environments to increase personalization, engagement, and efficiency
  • Combine online and face-to-face components in instruction to make learning more effective and affordable than relying on a single mode of delivery, particularly for low-income and minority students, who might especially benefit from the support of interpersonal interaction blended with individualized, technology-enabled instruction
  • Deliver targeted, customized supports to improve retention and completion with limited resources
  • Use learning analytics and performance management systems to deliver quality, affordability, and continuous improvement
  • Enable secondary school students to gain college credit or otherwise ease the transition from high school to postsecondary learning, taking advantage of the capability of technology to enable bridging between secondary and postsecondary education that may accelerate students’ progression toward the completion of degrees
  • Provide new degree programs or whole-institution models with sufficient autonomy to allow the flexibility necessary to produce and/or incorporate transformational innovations in areas such as the use of time, the role of instructors and other staff, and instructional delivery and business models

Can all of this be accomplished at a substantially more affordable price point? There has been debate about the viability of $10,000 Bachelor’s degrees. Can degrees be delivered with quality at this price? We believe several existing models suggest that annual spending in the $5,000 to $7,500 range, while successfully moving students toward a degree, is within reach through aggressive pricing, spending control, and technology-enabled delivery.  Cost levels of the kind we envision will only be possible if institutions are able and permitted to rethink how learning is constructed, how outcomes are measured, and how organizations are designed. The $5,000-$7,500/year figure is an average “Education and Related” (full cost per student) figure which is significantly lower than most postsecondary education programs. It is approximately half of the average full cost of community colleges ($10,242 per the Delta Cost Project, the source for these estimates),  and a third to half of the average costs at a public four-year master’s institution ($12,363 per the Delta Cost Project.) The question remains: can these lower cost programs be delivered without sacrificing quality, accessibility, and scalability? Do these alternative models get more students to degree completion? NGLC Wave IIIb is intended to ask these questions and provide the field with more and better information and potential exemplars to answer them. Details are available in the RFP (now closed)

Wave IIIb in the Larger Context of NGLC Investments

NGLC’s first two waves invested in catalytic “building blocks” to support new educational approaches. While innovations of this kind are necessary to enable new learning and organizational approaches, by themselves they will not be sufficient to meet either the scale or the nature of the need. Complete programs of study leading to associate’s and/or bachelor’s degrees that reorganize the learning process and redefine students’ experiences of higher education are necessary to serve as testing grounds, proof points, and sources of competitive pressure to generate dramatically improved outcomes through the higher education system.

The investments in Wave IIIb, consequently, are being made with the following design parameters in mind:

Vision: Fundamentally improved models of higher education at the degree program or college level that blend the best aspects of brick-and-mortar and online learning result in deeper learning at scale, equal or lower costs with greater effectiveness, and improved rates of degree completion.

Scope of Wave IIIb: NGLC Wave III seeks to stimulate the development of breakthrough, next-generation online and blended programs that lead to high-quality Associate’s or Bachelor’s degrees at affordable costs, particularly for underserved populations.

What Success Looks Like: A strong portfolio of new associate’s or bachelor’s degree programs with credible, coherent, and scalable business models designed to meet this set of “50/5/5” targets:

  • 50% AA completion rate (or 75% bachelor’s degree completion rates) for Pell Grant-eligible students and those from minority groups in 150% of standard time
  • $5,000-$7500 in average education and related spending per year (with a clear, plausible plan to get to the $5,000 target threshold), and $5,000 or less per year in “sticker prices” per full-time student (or full-time equivalent)
  • 5,000 students (FTE) served by year five after implementation launch

Wave IIIb seeks degree programs with a cost per degree (or equivalent portion of the degree credits provided by the institution) that averages 25% to 50% below average degree production costs for relevant comparison institutions.  Degree costs can be reduced either by reducing unit production costs, or by getting more students to the degree. 

Quality is critically important to this wave of investment. Because there are no comparable student outcome measures that are broadly accepted in postsecondary education (particularly, measures that indicate deeper learning outcomes), we are expecting applicants to provide an explanation of how they are tracking and assuring quality in their degree programs. Potential measures include direct measures of student learning (e.g., standardized discipline exams, Collegiate Learning Assessment), external assessments/licensure exams, and/or labor market outcomes (e.g., placement rates, wage data,

Our grantees have incorporated, in their applications, most or all of the strategies described to design the breakthrough models. The models may represent a new system of learning design and delivery for existing degree programs, or a new system organized around a new degree. We have encouraged innovative organizational partnerships and other approaches that may differ from the traditional single-institution/single-provider model; we are strongly interested in supporting development of comprehensive models designed incorporating the listed strategies and demonstrating convincingly a strong likelihood of achieving the “50/5/5” targets with quality.

The grantees’ experience and outcomes in pursuing this vision will serve the entire field; that is a commitment they have made in becoming part of the NGLC community of grantees. Stay tuned to this site for commentary, reports, and evidence as they emerge from these institutions and entrepreneurs.

Click to watch the video below, "A Showcase of Breakthrough Models in Higher Education."