Joe Gottlieb (00:02):
Hello and welcome to transformed, a Higher Digital podcast focused on the new why’s, the new what’s and the new how’s in higher ed. My name is Joe Gottlieb, President of Higher Digital. And today I am joined by John Gabrieli, co-founder and managing director of the Trio New College Network focused on helping communities across the country launch innovative, low cost, flexible degree programs. John, welcome to transformed.
John Gabrieli (01:03):
Thanks Joe. Happy to be here. What do you wanna talk about?
Joe Gottlieb (01:07):
Well, I wanna talk about Trio and its innovative approach to helping communities create hybrid colleges focused on competency-based outcomes for students. I first learned about this when I saw you on a panel at ASU+GSV. I was really taken by the methods being used and some of the early results you are seeing. But first I really want you to share with our audience a bit about your personal journey and how it shaped your perspective and passion for this work that you are doing.
John Gabrieli (01:43):
Thanks, Joe. I appreciate the question. I think for me, education is at its core about opportunity and this idea that we can go as far as our talent and our hard work will take us. And also that each generation will be able to advance further than the last. I grew up believing in the American dream because my grandparents lived it. They were immigrants who fled Nazi and Soviet occupations in Hungary in Eastern Europe and came to America to seek a better life for my dad and his brother. And that’s a vision that came to life for them. The education that my dad received here that now I’ve received here has opened up all the doors in the world for me and for my siblings. I believe in the value of education. And so outta college, I became a teacher, but as a teacher myself, I was very often confronted with the reality on a daily basis, really that for many of my students, they just were not getting the opportunities that I did growing up.
John Gabrieli (02:48):
My students, you know, they were every bit as smart and passionate as I was, but the deck was stacked against them from the beginning. It’s pretty well established at this point that the best predictors of student success are your race and your parents’ income. And so while my students were working hard and I was doing everything I could to support them, it just didn’t feel like enough. In terms of the resources and, and access they had, I mean our school didn’t have paper as a teacher. I had to buy paper and bring it in to make copies because we literally didn’t have paper. We didn’t have a science curriculum. There were systemic change that were needed beyond what was happening in any one classroom. And that’s what led me to the work that I do now. If you look at the data, we think of America as the land of opportunity, but the reality is that mobility’s been declining now for decades and America is 17th in the world in mobility.
John Gabrieli (03:42):
We think of education as this great equalizer and this engine for mobility, but in truth, we have a system that by and large is best serving upper middle class, 18 year old white students and not a new generation of more diverse learners, including working adults, students of color and first generation, low income students. I think we need to do better. It’s reflected in our graduation rates where 45% of Hispanic students don’t graduate college, 60% of black students don’t graduate college and 90% of first gen low income students don’t graduate. And that’s what motivated me. I left the classroom, I became a researcher again, searching for new models that could help all of our students succeed. And that’s when I came across this hybrid college model and I said, that’s it? I think this could be the future right here.
Joe Gottlieb (04:38):
Wow. Great background. Thanks for sharing that. And like I would say to someone that I might meet from the arm services or some government agencies, thank you for your service clearly your, your, your headlong into this and and really trying to find a way to serve that, that, that, that greater, that greater cause that you observed as being, not the great equalizer that we wanna believe it is so true. So let’s help me break this down, help me understand the, the trio new college network and, and how it works and how it’s helping students to achieve learning milestones cuz in the end, that’s what we’re after here. Right?
John Gabrieli (05:18):
That’s right. So trio’s a national incubator to spread this hybrid college approach. And of course the question, well, what, what is hybrid college? It’s a model that, that works to combine, you know, technology driven, personalized learning with the human touch that I think is critical to real teaching and learning. And it, and specifically it has two core pieces online project based courses and then in person coaching and support. So to begin with, you know, first you have this curriculum, we are partnered trio is partnered in particular with Southern New Hampshire university. And that de dates back to 2012 when with some funding from next generation learning challenges and also from the gates foundation, S N H U took kind of a moonshot on building a really a fundamentally different type of college program that was aimed at being much more affordable, much more flexible and work relevant.
John Gabrieli (06:15):
That program launched in 2013 called college for America. And it was the first in the country to be approved by the us department of education to receive federal funding under the department’s new direct assessment provision, totally independent from the traditional credit hour structure with this competency based framework. And we can get more into that later too. The curriculum is really powerful, but it’s also only the first half of the story. Second piece, as I mentioned, is this in person coaching and support. And that happened because almost by coincidence at the same time as SNO was launching this college for America program, there was another school here in Boston match, high school that was facing its own college completion challenges. And specifically they found that, you know, they were matches an award winning national high school with some really impressive outcomes, but they found that they were getting almost 90% of their students into college, but less than half were actually graduating.
John Gabrieli (07:14):
And those students were leaving with debt. And oftentimes, you know, obviously without a degree. And so they had a, a long time history teacher there named Bob hill who went out to talk to students and to try to understand what the challenge was. And Bob came back and said to the team there, the problem’s not our students, they have what it takes to succeed. The problem is a system that was not built for them to succeed. And Matt started, you know, and what he meant by that. It’s too expensive. It’s not flexible enough. There’s not enough support. A lot of students were experiencing culture shock or were, you know, on campuses where they were not well represented. And so Matt started casting around and saying, what are the most innovative options out there? Cuz we made this promise to our students to get them a better future.
John Gabrieli (07:58):
We have to deliver on that promise. And it was in that context that Bob heard about this new program college for America. And he reached out and said, Hey, could we partner with you, we’ll get access to your curriculum. And I’ll coach we, I, in this case and started out with just Bob we’ll, coach our students through to success, helping them with their FAFSA, transferring credits, completing projects, you know, staying on track and just overcoming a lot of the life barriers that when he talked to students, we’ getting in the way, whether it’s childcare transportation, mm-hmm employment. It started out with Bob and eight of his former students in a Panera bread here in Boston. Awesome. And fast forward seven years from 2014 duets now helped 400 students earn their degree. Their students fully reflect the growing diversity of America’s students. More than a quarter.
John Gabrieli (08:49):
Our parents two thirds are PE eligible. 90% are students of color. Median age is 27. Most are working full time. And many have also run into some of those same barriers that I was talking about that many face in the American higher education system, which is to say that almost 70% have attended at least one institution of higher education and not completed a degree they’ve dropped out a third, have attempted at least twice at different institutions of higher education and not graduated. And yet duet has helped now hundreds of those students complete their degree and find a path in the middle class, cuz it’s not just about degrees for degrees sake. Through duet also provides career coaching and counseling services that have helped their average student see an income increase of more than $15,000. And so duet was one of the pioneers of what is now this growing hybrid college movement, including sites as well like Peloton U and Texas and rivet school and the bay area that have achieved really breakthrough results. And as we started to see these results and how transformative this new model was for students, that’s when I left Southern New Hampshire university in 2020 to help found trio to help grow and scale this model so that not just some students, but all students could have access to this model for a high quality education.
Joe Gottlieb (10:13):
Okay, fantastic. So, so then you joined in 2020 from Southern New Hampshire university where you were active there now then knowing that they had partnered to be part of this or did you help facilitate that partnership for SN into trio?
John Gabrieli (10:34):
Yeah, so I helped facilitate that, that partnership with trio. And I think I talked to some of my teammates at SN I was working there in the innovation center as a researcher, looking at new models. And the, the question I was always asking was, I mean, these results are so transformative. When you talk to students, when you talk to site leaders, you can see the impact it’s having, but why are there only, you know, a dozen of these sites serving a few hundred students when there are 36 million Americans with some college in no degree and what I felt and we felt that we needed was some kind of scaling infrastructure to support the spread of high quality new programs to, to new communities. And that’s what we
Joe Gottlieb (11:09):
Went to. OK. So then, and you’ve referred your to trio as a, a national incubator of hybrid colleges, which we’ve now had some opportunity to talk about, which is, and we’ll talk more about, and so, you know, I’ll say that it, it, it, it seems like something that one would compare potentially to an OPM, an online program manager that there’s a lot of them out there. I’ll say openly, we we’ve been a bit critical of them because sometimes it seems that they, they, they fill a gap in an institution’s trajectory that allows that institution to go online and use that mechanism for perhaps reaching the same audiences, same markets, perhaps reaching audiences and markets, but nonetheless participate in online education delivery. And yet it often comes with a structured model that ends up really wrenching some of the financials related to that.
Joe Gottlieb (12:06):
And ultimately doesn’t leave the institution with their own ability to really do this. And so when I saw your model, John, the first thing that came to mind was it seemed like you were more of a dissolving OPM where you could help get things rolling and started and not be so structured and financially wired such that the institution is left either dependent or undeveloped. So if that’s true, I’d like to confirm that, or maybe you can disabuse me of that notion, but that’s what came to mind at least that this, this notion you get ’em started and then you can fade away. But how does that work for trio?
John Gabrieli (12:41):
No, I it’s an interesting comparison. And, and not one that I had heard before, but at, at a, at a first level, obviously there, there are some similarities. I mean, you know, we’re working with universities to help support and scale online programs, which obviously has overlap as you say, with what OPMs do at a deeper level though. I, I think I do agree that there are some pretty, some pretty core differences. And one is the one that you just named our goal and it’s sort of strange, but our goal is to make ourselves irrelevant. In the sense of we help new hybrid college sites get off the ground. We aim to be sort of a booster rocket of helping build, bring, bringing together a board and recruit an executive director and train them and provide all of the HR and tech systems and, and help the site bely successful and get off the ground and reach certain measures of quality, sustainability, and scale, and then to step back and to, and hopefully to allow sites to spin off as locally led community nonprofits, to build hopefully institutions that will last in the community for years to come.
John Gabrieli (13:43):
I think from the university perspective, there’s also a couple other differences. One is our focus is highly local and in person around coaching and support that’s embedded in the community. So I, my experience is, and obviously not universally, but especially with the large OPMs they typically live mostly in the cloud and they’re helping universities build these systems program, online program, design, student information systems, digital marketing that they need to scale nationally, or sometimes even globally. Our competency is this PHY. We have a physical site, local coaches who are from the community, wraparound support services like childcare and food and transportation. So it’s this deeply locally rooted approach as opposed to a more national scaled model.
Joe Gottlieb (14:31):
Yeah. So, so literally you think about, I mean, I’m gonna put some words in your mouth, but you tell me if they fit. And that is, you know, much like a McDonald’s franchise is engineered for success and, and with great results, right? Not that we need to tap into the sort of fast food topic, but, but you are thinking about logistically, what does it take to accomplish outcomes? And that’s part of the quote franchise design that you’re helping these hybrid colleges to adopt while you’ve, you’re taking advantage of one. Great, you know, starting point, which is this, this curriculum that’s, that’s already capably serving via online delivery, but now you’re wrapping that with coaching and more, right. So that’s, that’s how this quote, so those franchises is that a term you use, is that a fair term?
John Gabrieli (15:23):
We don’t use the term franchise there’s I see the analogy there. I think we wanna, at our core, we wanna embrace local leadership. So trio is providing these core shared services that are allowing site leaders. The unit of success is the site leader and the community movement behind them. We are there to be the supporting and enabling sort of set of systems, such that it’s hard to get a new site off the ground, everything from legal and regulatory compliance, budgeting, tech systems, you know, creating your marketing design brand logo we’re sort of there to provide this full suite of wraparound supports to help that leader and their team be able to focus on what they’re doing, which is the important work, which is coaching students and helping them actually succeed in the program. But our hope, you know, as, as you mentioned with this self dissolving piece is to get to the point where those sites can stand on their own legs. And so we kind of help them get their start. But ultimately that we would have sort of a national network of affiliated and connected and, you know, a national learning network of folks who are working together to identify best practices, but that are at their core local entities that are tied to that community rather than sort of part of this, you know, McDonald’s national franchise.
Joe Gottlieb (16:40):
Yeah. I didn’t mean to, I didn’t mean to characterize not at all, not
John Gabrieli (16:42):
Joe Gottlieb (16:42):
At all, but no, that, that, I think that helps me better understand it and makes it more clear then, then that begs the question then. So then how does trio sustain itself in the long term? That’s I think that then just so we, if we’re, you know, grappling with the different edges of the model, right? Like, so that means that you need, you need funds to be able to continue this work and you need to ultimately figure out what is the business model that allows us to scale nationally to have the impact that you’re seeking.
John Gabrieli (17:13):
Absolutely. And, and, you know, scale’s a big part of the work we’re doing. That’s, that’s the goal? I think, well, first of all, the whole, the whole setup here is enabled by the fact that Southern New Hampshire university is doing this as mission work, Southern New Hampshire of course is nonprofit. And this is part of their social impact effort there at S N U. And so they are willing and, and in fact, seek to not to make surplus or make profit off of this offering, but just to offer it essentially at cost or even below cost. And it’s one of the only models as a result in higher education where the majority of the tuition dollars are actually going to support, not new gyms and you know, the core academic faculty and going to support rock walls and dining halls and everything else, but are going directly to personal coaching and support that’s in the community.
John Gabrieli (18:07):
We know from a lot of randomized controlled trials and research is the most critical piece to help students graduate at high rates, especially for historically underserved students. So Southern New Hampshire takes that tuition that they receive and they’re sharing, you know, half or even the majority of that back to the local community nonprofit so that it can be reinvested in that community. And I think that’s what allows the sites to reach sustainability for us as trio. We’ve set up a model so far where we wanted to demonstrate proof of concept that this can work, that we can launch three sites. We launched three sites this year in Detroit, Newark and Camden. We’re launching three sites again next year. And once we’re able to demonstrate that this can work this fellowship based approach, then I think that’s when we would want to both raise funds and set up a model that could really take this to scale in the sense of launching, you know, five to 10 sites per year in a way that’s financially sustainable. But at this first level so far, we have, we have not been taking any revenue from sites to support trio national operations, cuz we don’t wanna, we know how hard it is to get sites off the ground and we wanna make sure that they have the resources they need.
Joe Gottlieb (19:12):
Excellent. So let’s now shift to the the, the competency based aspect of this, right? So help our listeners understand first the role of, of competency based in this model and how it’s uniquely fitting to the model in particular.
John Gabrieli (19:36):
Yes. And, and, and competency based is really core to what we’re offering here. And I think in a couple of different ways, so one we know that many adult learners time is a, is a scarce resource folks are balancing, and this is something I experienced when I was a teacher, I was taking online master’s courses with Johns Hopkins. I wasn’t a parent or had I had no family obligations at that time. But even just balancing school with a full-time work schedule is very difficult. And when you add in family responsibilities, you know, other obligations, it’s hard to balance that with traditional format classes that have a pretty rigid schedule when you need to be in class, when you have deadlines for assignments. And students often struggle with that. The competency based framework is actually totally asynchronous. So students can fit their studies around their life rather than the other way around.
John Gabrieli (20:28):
You could work on the weekend. You could work at one in the morning, sort of 24, 7, 365. You could do it your way and fit it around your life. I think another big piece of it is cost. So, you know, the average student now is graduating with almost $30,000 in debt in the United States. Think we just passed 1.7 trillion in federal student, total federal student debt. But this model is designed to be tied to the federal Pell grant. So it’s, it’s more than 90% of tuition is covered by that Pell grant. And so for those highest needs students, you know, you can attend college through this model for just $168 a term. And, and the last piece is pedagogically. I think it’s designed to be much more work relevant and, and REL, and just applicable to, for working learners. So rather than sitting in a class for a certain number of hours and then passing a test at the end, you know, you’re completing real world projects that demonstrate your mastery of the content.
John Gabrieli (21:28):
And so in an accounting course, for example, rather than sitting through a bunch of lectures and taking a multiple choice test, you are getting a project that says it’s drawn from a real world scenario from, you know employer partners, balances, balance sheet, and then write an email to your boss recommending what changes to implement next quarter. And you’re getting very rapid, you know, within 48 to 72 hour feedback from a reviewer who is a faculty member who has experience in field, who is able to give you either mastery or not yet. And again, there’s no as, and there’s no F’s, you either have achieved mastery, which is a high bar mastery means a level work, or you receive a not yet where you receive detailed feedback on where you need to improve. And I think it’s just much more conducive to genuine learning that when we talk to students, they talk a lot about how you’re learning skills that are then directly applicable in your, in your day to day work.
Joe Gottlieb (22:27):
Wow. So just to hear about it, it’s very refreshing, right? Because it’s so fitting to the challenge and yet it also reflects a major departure from a lot of tradition, right. And so knowing that pedagogy changes in higher ed are are for sure controversial, you know, I, I know you guys did a, a study with the Harvard Kennedy school that produced some very interesting results, so help, what sort of evidence can we point to about competency based approaches and their, their effect?
John Gabrieli (22:59):
I mean, you’re, you’re you’re right. Higher education is certainly a field that values tradition and, and change sometimes can be controversial. But I would, I think that even the staunchest defenders of our American higher education system, which as many strengths would admit that right now, our system is not working for all students. And I think as a result, we need to try new approaches and we need to be rigorous and, and, and hardheaded about measuring what works and, you know, stopping what doesn’t. For years we had seen very promising data coming out of these hybrid colleges. We had heard student stories about the impact, but there had yet to be a research paper published actually quantifying what that meant. And as you mentioned last fall, I had the privilege of working with professor Marty west and Kate LAR the Harvard graduate school of education and the Harvard Kennedy school to, to dig into the data and say, what have the outcomes been for the first 554 students to enroll in this new model?
John Gabrieli (23:56):
And that’s all students enrolled, you know, looking across the board at, in duet here in Boston. And while the analysis, obviously isn’t causal, it’s not a randomized assignment. The outcomes themselves are very suggested that this model can be highly transformative. So a couple ones to highlight graduation rates. So graduation rates, three year graduation rates in the associate degree program on time graduation rates of 46%, more than two and a half times, the statewide average here in Massachusetts time to completion nationwide, it takes adult learners more than five years to complete a associate degree in duet. They were doing it in just 18 months. Cost obviously is a critical factor for many learners. The cost of an associate degree at duet was kind of half even compared to traditional public two year institutions. And then from an equity perspective Massachusetts statewide and nationwide, there’s a two to one X differential in graduation rates for students of color black students versus white students.
John Gabrieli (25:01):
And duet was one of the first models in Massachusetts to ever successfully completely eliminate that gap. In fact, black students are slightly more likely to graduate on time in that program. And so when you think about those results, I think you can see this isn’t the right model for every student. Some students prefer face to face. Some students want to be part of sororities and fraternities in a coming age experience, and that will and should continue to exist. But especially for adult learners who need a more flexible model, that’s more affordable. I think the results are pretty clear that this can be very transformative
Joe Gottlieb (25:37):
Well, and then that brings us to the, the social and economic mobility of those students that are benefiting from this new model. I think you’ve alluded to this, but it seems to go without saying that this, this, this is a game changer. How do you see that evolving out?
John Gabrieli (25:53):
And that’s our that’s really our core mission at trio is education as a pathway to upward mobility and opportunity. We know from the data that education is the biggest single driver of that American dream that I was talking about. And, and social mobility students who are born into the bottom income quintile, who graduate from a four year institution are five times less likely to remain there as adults. But right now, still too many students are excluded from those opportunities because it’s too expensive. And because it’s not supportive enough when the Pell grant was created, it covered 79% of the costs of attending a four year public college today it’s it’s 29%. And as a result, students are falling through their cracks. And I mean, even at our community largest community college here in Boston, more than half of students literally report experiencing food insecurity, they’re choosing between paying tuition and meeting basic needs and students choose to drop out in that limits their lifetime opportunities.
John Gabrieli (26:56):
That research shows that students who earn a degree over the lifetime earn more than 1.2 million of income compared to students without a college degree. So this can be this college degree and providing more pathways to access for students. Who’ve historically been locked out. I think it has been very transformative. And if I could illustrate, you know, briefly Joe, I think when I think about this, I think about a friend of mine, Fred Zizi, Fred is one of the first students to graduate or one of the early students to graduate from this hybrid college approach here at duet. Fred was an immigrant from Rwanda who came over to the United States, pursuing that American dream with a passion for business and entrepreneurship. He wanted to start his own business. He knew that to pursue that dream, he needed to get a college degree, but he was also working full time and he was only able to do night and weekend classes.
John Gabrieli (27:48):
He was getting good grades, but after five years, he still hadn’t earned his associate degree. And so he said, this isn’t gonna work. And he literally spent some of the last of his savings on buying a bus ticket, went to Boston Hawk merchandise from a souvenir stand for a while until he came across this program, Boston duet in Boston in six months, Fred had earned his associate degree and just over a year, he was able to get his bachelor’s degree. And he now holds his dream job at Cambridge associates and is participating in a program called color wave to provide better access for professionals of color, to found and lead new companies. And I’ll say one last piece about Fred cuz Fred was actually just highlighted in the New York times last month or two months ago now as with, under the headline from homeless to venture capital.
John Gabrieli (28:39):
And I had dinner with Fred in, you know, passive, congratulations, that’s incredible. And he said a he’s proud and, and, and everything else as he should be, but B he feels like that doesn’t capture the whole story here because people are calling and saying congratulations. And he has this incredible success stories. You know, see the American dream is still possible, but he, in his mind, he’s the exception, not the rule. He got his shot, thanks to programs like duet and like Europe, but those programs don’t exist for most students in most cities. And in his mind, what he’s thinking about is how many more students are there like me, who, because they were born in Cleveland or St. Louis or wherever never got access to these opportunities and they never got their shot. And so that’s why Fred ultimately has joined us as a founding board member here at trio because he wants to take that same model that has benefited him and spread it across the country so that we can live in a world where a story like his isn’t front page news. It’s, it’s the norm.
Joe Gottlieb (29:41):
Great story, John. So let’s, if you could, let’s give our listeners three takeaways to summarize this whole concept, which I think is so powerful, but in your words what can we leave our listeners with here?
John Gabrieli (29:55):
Sure. First I’d say hybrid college represents a real paradigm shift in education by combining what’s best about technology, personalization, affordability, flexibility with that human touch, that is so core to, to really authentic teaching and learning and has transformed education in that way. Second, I would say, we think we’re focused on scale at trio scale of this model is it’s going to be hard because it’s so rooted in community based relationships, personal relationships, coaching, but it’s also necessary to achieve that type of systemic change that we wanna see and that Fred and many others wanna see. And I think change is gonna be hard, but what’s gonna enable us to do it. The model of change that we believe in is that change is going to be bottom up rather than top down, that it’s gonna come from authentic leaders from their communities who understand the challenges that those communities face.
John Gabrieli (30:58):
And I’ll, I’ll give you one final closing example here, which is I’ll talk about degree forward, which is the Detroit. Our Detroit tri site degree forward is founded by an executive director. Her name’s Danielle north, Danielle is from Michigan. She graduated from central Michigan university. She herself was the first in her family to graduate college. She’s a lifelong advocate and entrepreneur who’s lived in Detroit and worked in Detroit for Detroit public schools in, in support of local affordable housing. And now she’s helping launch degree forward because she wants more opportunities for her own community. And I think when you go to Detroit, when you talk to Danielle and her team and you talk to the students there, you could see that this isn’t just not just, but this isn’t simply a college access program. This is, is about a broader movement about reenvisioning what higher education looks like and who it can serve. And that’s a pretty aspirational vision, but I think that if we are going to get there, it’s going to be because of leaders like Danielle, who, you know, she’s just not gonna quit until we do. So that’s the model that we believe in.
Joe Gottlieb (32:04):
Well, I saw Danielle on the panel at ASU, G S V. And I, I think I saw some of that, that, that passion, right? So John, thanks so much for joining me today, it’s been a pleasure.
John Gabrieli (32:16):
Thanks, Joe. Likewise, appreciate you having me on.
Joe Gottlieb (32:20):
All right. And thanks to our guest for joining us as well, have a great day, and we’ll look forward to hosting you again on the next episode of transformed.