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PelotonU lifts up students with a bold new idea

  1. Future of Work

PelotonU lifts up students with a bold new idea

A revolutionary approach to self-paced online college is changing lives across the country.

Two women talking at a desk

Picture a cycling race.

Actually, picture the cycling race, the Tour de France. What do you see, cruising through picturesque villages, powering up brutal Alpine climbs, pushing into Paris? 

A group of cyclists, riding together, all wheels and legs and bright colored jerseys in a huffing, living pack — a colonial organism protecting each other, helping each other through one of the most grueling feats of athleticism in the world. They ride this way because they can ride better, faster, further, and they can help their main racer win. They ride this way because going it alone is not the best strategy.

That pack is called a peloton.

For a college student who does not fit the stereotype — young, single, no kids or family responsibilities — fulfilling their potential and living their dreams is much like being a solo cyclist. They face challenges that can feel impossible to surmount.

"How am I going to be a full time student?" Ashley, a working mother who is working toward her teaching degree, asks. "How am I going to be a full time mom? And pay for all this, at the same time?" 

Surrounded by a learning community, aided by a coach, and working towards fulfilling her dream in a setting built for her success, PelotonU student Ashley is on her way to working in education.


As it is traditionally structured, college requires a massive investment of time and money. For the many students who are not wealthy, are commuters, work full-time jobs, or have families to take care of, it's a model that doesn't work because it wasn't designed for them.

"Over 70% of students are working full time and supporting a family," says Hudson Baird. "And so when forced to choose between the very fixed structure of school, and the important commitments and responsibilities of a full life, students are forced to make an impossible choice."

These challenges contribute to a startling reality: 45 million Americans who began their college journey never finish, with their chances of living their dream and fulfilling their potential hampered..

That's why Baird has founded a college that takes a different approach, one where demonstrating skills learned is more important than credit hours clocked, and where a community and coaches support students like Ashley on their difficult journey. It's called PelotonU — and it's a revolutionary approach to self-paced online college .

The PelotonU self-paced online college is a different type of school

"The structure of college hasn't really meaningfully changed," Baird, who is also the executive director of PelotonU, says. 

Trappings, traditions, and models carry legacies that span centuries. The end result is an outdated design that sees learning as one-size-fits-all, with time-consuming classes and lectures making up the curriculum and tests, not mastery, serving as the final decider.

Although community colleges and online degree programs have brought college education to more people than ever before, they still rely on the old one-size-fits-all model and fail to focus on flexibility in online learning.

By focusing on how many credit hours you have taken and mandating a rigid curriculum, these colleges operate more like assembly lines than learning laboratories. It forces many students out of their academic careers, preventing them from realizing their potential as the demands on time and money become too much.

Students with a full life will struggle to fit in and pay for an onerous college schedule, and will have less than a 20% chance of reaching the finish line of their learning journey alone, Baird says. That means there are many dedicated, driven people being left behind because the race was simply structured for someone other than them.

"And until we really reevaluate the way that school is designed, we'll miss so much that some of our brightest and hardest working learners have to offer," Baird says, referring to people like Ashley.

PelotonU may be a new model to realize that potential. The college's student body is a microcosm of the new face of students and strivers in America, the ones whose potential is being left unrealized.

According to PelotonU, 42% of their students are parents like Ashley; 56% have tried college using traditional models before; and 86% are the first ones in their families to pursue a college degree. 

But the most important number of all is that 81% of PelotonU students reach their learning goals within standard timelines — around three years.

Competency-based education focuses on learning, not tests

To help their students fulfill their potential, PelotonU lifts a page from the cyclists: creating a community, having a coach, and measuring success based on an individual's ability to prove they've developed — and mastered — the skills they need. 

PelotonU students don't pile up hours to earn a degree. Instead, the school uses a teaching philosophy known as "competency-based education." 

In competency-based education, students are allowed to work at their own pace and learn without tests or grades. Instead, they must demonstrate their knowledge. Project-based degree programs help students learn by doing. Then, by demonstrating mastery of their new skill, they progress to the next one. 

This turns learning into the unit of progress, Baird says; because students need to demonstrate 100% knowledge, they are also learning how to learn.

Currently, PelotonU partners with regionally accredited nonprofit colleges that have expertise in online learning — like Southern New Hampshire University and Western Governors University — to help students find the associate's or bachelor's degree programs that are right for them. 

This can include cybersecurity, communications, healthcare management, and IT. If none of those seem right for the individual, PelotonU will work with the student to create the right course.

Once they have found their own course, the students demonstrate their mastery and cross the line in each stage, and just like a cyclist they move toward their eventual goal.

And, like a cyclist, they have a coach and team to help them. 

At PelotonU, nobody rides alone

Students need their own peloton of people who know their struggles, know their dreams, and can help them achieve their goals. PelotonU students are paired with a community and a personal coach, Baird says, to provide encouragement and help them navigate what can be a pretty tricky race.

"With PelotonU, you meet with your coach once a week," Ashley says.

But Ashley and her coach Noemi talk every day. It was important for Noemi to truly get to know Ashley, she says — not just who she is, but who she believes she is. By learning about Ashley's goals and motivations, Noemi can help her on the path to realizing her potential, which means more than helping academically. 

"With nontraditional students, there's a lot of shame that we are dispelling," Noemi says. "And giving her the tools to empower herself, to rewrite those narratives, it's a beautiful process."

Now, with a coach and peloton to support her, Ashley is one stage closer to realizing her dream: opening her own school. Ashley now knows college can be for her too, and that a team — a community — of people want her to succeed.

It's that type of supportive community that can help every person do more than they ever imagined. "To do hard things, we need a group to ride together with us," Baird says.

Learn more about Stand Together's education efforts

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