Community colleges in Spokane, Wash., have experienced a sharp increase in international applications over the last two years, many of them from China, thanks to a targeted marketing campaign run by Quad Learning.
The venture-backed startup launched its pilot program in Spokane in 2012 and now operates in five community college systems, creating and marketing an initiative it calls "American Honors." The program provides services for high-achieving students who want to transfer to elite universities, and it is meant to bring in applicants who traditionally wouldn't consider a community college: those from out of county, out of state, and even out of country. In Spokane, 20% of students enrolled in the program are international, for instance.
"It's all about college affordability," said Phil Bronner, a former venture capitalist who now serves as Quad Learning's founder and CEO. Transferring from community colleges to four-year institutions is "the highest-value pathway in higher ed," he said. "You get the same degree at a dramatically lower cost than attending a four-year institution."
As a business, Quad Learning has borrowed part of its model from one of the education world's most successful startups: 2U, which went public last month and helps universities create online degree programs. Quad Learning partners with community colleges to create honors programs, providing advising and transfer partnerships to students and marketing and faculty advising services to the colleges themselves. Like 2U, Quad Learning makes its money from a revenue-sharing program — American Honors students pay a $2,500 fee on top of the college's tuition.
International students pay more: a flat $12,900, which Quad Learning says covers "additional supports."
By bringing an entirely new type of student to two-year schools, Quad Learning is hoping to capitalize on a transformative moment for community colleges. Student debt levels are rising, admissions at elite universities are inching lower, and many two-year institutions are realizing that now is the time to shed their image as the underachieving, underfunded stepchildren of American higher education.
Recently, community colleges have grabbed headlines for increasingly dropping words like "community" and "technical" from their name. Many have even begun to offer four-year bachelor's degree programs; 21 states now allow community colleges to grant bachelor's degrees, and a bill in California is currently on the horizon.
"With American Honors, we're really redefining community colleges and broadening the scope," said Lisa Avery, an administrator at Community Colleges of Spokane (CCS). "We have seen so much international interest."
For the community college system for the state of Indiana, IvyTech, director of communications Jeff Fanter says Quad Learning's program has "gotten us in front of an audience where we wouldn't even be on their radar. They have a perception of who they think we are, but American Honors helps us change that perception."
But some worry that by embracing new names, four-year degrees, and selective programs like American Honors, community colleges are trying to remake themselves in the image of four-year schools — and could end up leaving behind many of the very students they were created to serve.
"Community colleges should not be looking out of their communities to artificially boost enrollment or completion rates," said Tom Sugar, a senior vice president at College Complete America, a nonprofit focused on increasing college graduation rates. "Institutions that are trying to decide whether to go in this direction should say no, we're going to focus on the students we're currently serving."
Hunter Boylan, the director of the National Center for Developmental Education and a professor at Appalachian State University, says he has seen a trend of "mission creep" at community colleges. As institutions add selective programs and four-year degrees, "they reduce the emphasis on two-year and vocational degrees. Those are the right choice for a lot of students."
The "mission creep" is tied in part to recent criticism of community colleges, which have come under fire for low graduation rates and ineffective remedial education programs. Sugar and College Complete America blasted most remedial classes as a "road to nowhere."
Community colleges also have an incentive to add four-year programs because some vocational programs are in danger of being caught up in the Obama administration's "gainful employment" crackdown. Though it was targeted at for-profit colleges, the regulations include some community college programs with high student-debt-to-income ratios.
Spokane received 800 applications last fall for just 175 spots in the American Honors program, giving it an acceptance rate near that of schools like Tufts University and UCLA.
"Any time you have a community college attempt to improve their image by becoming more selective, they're systematically leaving out our poorest citizens," said Boylan.
At CCS, Avery said that serving students on both ends of the spectrum has often created a "dilemma." Though Spokane has embraced international students and added four-year degrees, it is also working to reform its developmental math and trade programs.
"We have tried to be true to being of and for the people," Avery said. "We don't want to become an elite-only community college."
Molly Hensley-Clancy is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
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