Three out of four college students officially qualify as "nontraditional" in some way: They have no high school diploma, enrolled more than one year after high school, are independent from parents, work full time, or are parents themselves. These students tend to face a series of personal and financial hurdles that put the odds of graduation against them.
Portmont College at Mount St. Mary’s, a new nonprofit college opening this fall, takes these challenges on, inviting highly motivated students, regardless of their prior academic preparation, to experience a low-cost education combining the latest technology with a holistic personal approach banking on some surprisingly old-fashioned liberal arts values. This is a new level of educational intervention for the Gates Foundation, which is funding Portmont through the MyCollege Foundation with $3 million in partnership with a small private Catholic college (which provided a fast track to accreditation). The model throws several Twitter feed’s worth of this-minute ideas for educational innovation into the blender and presses puree.
Srikant Vasan, the Gates Foundation’s first entrepreneur-in-residence, grew up in India and attended the Indian Institute of Technology. He started and sold two software companies before turning his attention to education. "We’re bringing together what a lot of the research says is correlated with success in college," he says, referring to findings by people like psychologist Martin Seligman and economist James Heckman that "non-cognitive skills" like persistence and optimism are more likely to determine success than straight scores on standardized tests. "I think we’re one of the first institutions to target personal characteristics like grit, character, and motivation as primary for admission." To find these students, Vasan is reaching out to charter school networks and community programs like City Year, Year Up, and YouthBuild.
What’s different about Portmont starts with the recruitment process. Prospective students will be asked to take a three-week free online course called LaunchPad (the first one starts December 10). The course will include psychological assessments and an introduction to the college’s core ideas, like believing in yourself. Meanwhile, Portmont’s proprietary analytics platform—developed by a CTO with expertise in the financial services industry—will be tracking each keystroke to help determine the student’s motivation and other qualities, data that will be combined with an interview to forecast the student’s chance of success.
Once they’re in, Portmont students will meet up for a one-week, one-credit intensive orientation where ideally they’ll bond with their classmates and the personal "success coaches" that are part of Portmont’s faculty, before heading back home to work on a largely online curriculum. They’ll return once every eight weeks to take part in group-project-based learning and presentations. The idea is to combine the best of online learning—self-pacing, convenience, and an analytics-powered dashboard that provides instant feedback to teacher and student—with some of the benefits of face-to-face education, while still keeping total costs low. Portmont will cost $5,240 per student, an amount entirely fundable with need-based Pell Grants, so that students can graduate debt free.
Portmont’s goal is to prepare students to demonstrate mastery in the skills employers want most. "There’s a real disconnect between what higher education offers and what employers are expecting," Vasan says. "Our way is to offer you not only the degree but credentials in core capabilities like critical thinking, problem solving, communications, quantitative literacy, and teamwork." The same data tracked on the dashboard that shows your progress while you’re in school can be made visible as a digital portfolio, to show employers why you scored a 4.2 out of 5 on teambuilding, for example.
Vasan is recruiting a few hundred students for the first year, but his goal is to reach 4,000 students nationwide within a few years, a level at which the program will be self-sustaining on tuition with no additional funding. They’ll grow by partnering with on-ground campuses with similar missions. First up: Denver and San Francisco.