Colorado Nonprofit Advances Equity in Higher Ed by Giving Students a Voice
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- AdvanceEDU helps students earn a degree at their own pace while remaining in the workforce.
- The program offers round-the-clock coaching and resources to students.
- Key to the program is its student leadership board, which offers suggestions and feedback from students on improving the program.
Lesley Del Rio wanted to pursue her degree, but her busy schedule slowed her progress.
Del Rio, 30, of Denver, is a single mother and works full time. To balance it all out, she could only enroll in one night class per semester at a traditional community college.
"I didn't really feel like I was a real student," she told BestColleges.
But Del Rio found a solution that allows her to work at her own pace rather than attending a single class per semester: self-paced, flexible degree programs. She first enrolled at the Texas-based PelotonU and then transferred when another self-paced, student-oriented degree program opened in her own city: AdvanceEDU.
The COVID-19 pandemic, high wages, and a tight job market have accelerated declines in higher education, with more people opting to head straight into the workforce rather than to college.
Now, AdvanceEDU, a Denver-based nonprofit, is looking to make college more accessible to those working students through career coaching, access to childcare, round-the-clock resources, and self-paced learning.
The nonprofit currently pairs students with one of three accredited institutions to help them earn in-demand degrees: Colorado State University Global, Southern New Hampshire University, and Western Governors University.
After Del Rio transferred to AdvanceEDU, she was able to complete her associate degree and is now working toward a bachelor's degree in communication from Southern New Hampshire University.
Del Rio told BestColleges that the self-paced model offering resources like coaching to students helped her stay employed and manage childcare while working toward her degree.
"It allowed me to still do all of my responsibilities as a mom, drop off and pick up and sports things, as well as not take food off of my table while still being able to work full time," Del Rio said.
'Built Around the Needs of the Working Student'
AdvanceEDU is optimized for accessibility because working students face barriers to completing their degrees that include both a lack of support and financial resources, CEO Lauren Trent said.
Potential students need to live in the Denver metro area, have a high school or GED diploma, and be willing to dedicate at least 12 hours per week on coursework. The nonprofit helps students fill out enrollment forms, pairs them with a coach, and aims to help students graduate without debt.
"About half of students in Denver, very similar to other urban settings, aren't accessing a postsecondary option," Trent told BestColleges. "And about half of those that do access actually complete."
— Lauren Trent, AdvanceEDU CEO
Trent added that low-income students, first-generation students, and students of color disproportionately lack access to higher education. She also noted that many of those students work while pursuing higher education.
Started in 2020 by a group of Colorado educators and business leaders, AdvanceEDU is built around flexibility for students. The program aims to allow students to obtain a degree at their own pace without leaving their jobs.
Trent said that means offering round-the-clock support to students, including coaching to keep them on track to graduate.
"If you're working and you're going to school, you are suddenly one of the busiest humans on the planet," Trent said. "And so if a student finds themselves struggling academically or logistically with life, they don't know quite where to go with that challenge."
Student Leadership Paramount
Trent said AdvanceEDU is "built around the needs of the working student." Part of that mission includes a student leadership board that helps to sculpt the program.
Del Rio, who is a member of AdvanceEDU's student leadership board, said she applied for the board after all of the nonprofit's students were invited to apply. She said her feedback as a student board member has ranged from ways to engage students and their families to advice on the organization's long-term strategic plan.
— Lesley Del Rio, AdvanceEDU's student leadership board member
"I think it's really, really important for organizations that serve the community to get the input of the community as often as possible," Del Rio said. "The student board does a really good job of that."
Sea Flakes, 40, one of the students working toward a degree at AdvanceEDU and a member of the organization's student leadership board, has already seen some of her suggestions implemented.
When she needed help with homework one night, she found she didn't have an easy way to connect with another student. Flakes, who works at Amazon in addition to pursuing a degree, suggested the organization use the messaging app Slack to help students connect.
"Now we're working with that," Flakes told BestColleges. "It's important to have students involved because every student should … have a voice. We all want to be part of the decision-making when it comes to our schoolwork and our career paths."
Tristan Abraham, 19, another member of AdvanceEDU's student leadership board, said board members meet monthly to discuss how to support their fellow students. The student leadership board not only makes suggestions to improve the student experience, Abraham told BestColleges, but also drives home the importance of student involvement in the program.
"We're students," Abraham said. "We're here, we're doing the work."
Flakes added that opening the door to student feedback also boosts student engagement in the program.
"I want other students to know that it's not just a closed door," Flakes said. "You have a voice. You can talk about your education. You can get help and resources."