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The Texas-based IDEA charter chain, along with the Noble Network in Chicago and the Match charter school in Boston, is trying to boost its college graduation rates by encouraging its former students who dropped out of college to enlist in an online college program where requirements are minimal.
By partnering with Southern New Hampshire University, which enrolls tens of thousands of students from across the country in its low-cost online college programs, the charter operators are coaching students through college. The university provides the coursework and confers degrees, while an arm or affiliate of the charter networks recruits and mentors students.
The Noble charter network in Chicago launched its partnership last year, following the IDEA network in Texas and Match Charter School in Boston. Together, the three programs now enroll nearly 1,000 students, and other charter operators say they’re watching closely.
It’s a notable extension of those networks’ mission, which for years has been to send their mostly low-income students of color to college. More recently, though, it’s become harder to ignore the reality that many of their alumni are leaving higher education without degrees…
If successful, these programs will provide students another chance to earn a degree that could bolster their financial futures, while also boosting the charter networks’ college completion rates…
So far, though, students in the programs have earned only a few dozen bachelor’s degrees. And the expansion of these programs worries some observers, who question whether students are getting a high-quality college experience — and whether the degrees students do earn will pay off in the job market.
IDEA launched IDEA-U in 2017 with around 40 students, including Chapa. Now, the program has around 400 students from across Texas enrolled, about half of whom are IDEA graduates.
Around 95 students are enrolled in Noble’s program, known as Noble Forward, which launched last year. Nearly all are graduates of a Noble school in Chicago.
Match’s program, initially called Match Beyond, began in 2013 by enrolling mostly Match alumni, but was spun off as a nonprofit called Duet in 2018. It now serves around 500 students who graduated from high schools across the Boston area.
The programs differ slightly, but the academics work the same way. Students enroll in one of a handful of “competency-based” degree programs offered by Southern New Hampshire University and progress by completing projects designed to show they’ve mastered key skills.
There are no lectures, professors, or class discussions, but students are assigned readings and videos. Students work at their own pace — instead of on a set academic calendar — re-submitting projects as many times as they need, though the university says students average around two tries. Their projects are evaluated by a university “reviewer” with at least a master’s degree.
Underlying question: Is the goal of this program to provide a valuable education to students or to improve the data of the sponsors?