Disruption goes to College at IDEA University

Disruption goes to College at IDEA University

Right now 100% of IDEA Public Schools students are accepted to college. Only 50% graduate, CEO and founder Tom Torkelson said at the San Antonio charter district’s annual luncheon. That’s a number he’d like to change, and when Torkelson wants to change a number, he usually finds a way to disrupt the market that’s creating it. He didn’t invent charter schools, but he opens them more aggressively than most. He didn’t invent online competency-based learning, but he’s about to get really aggressive in delivering it.

Torkelson wants to the be the nagging parent pushing IDEA alumni toward a college degree, and that’s what he will do at IDEA University. The accredited university will be an online extension of College for America through Southern New Hampshire University. SNHU specializes in online education for nontraditional students, those who have to support families or work full time.

This fits the description for many of the IDEA graduates, who, while they do graduate high school, do not automatically join the middle class. Many of them still face the obstacles of poverty that hold that nationwide low-income college graduation statistic around 10%.

While the IDEA college graduation rate is roughly four times the national percentage of low-income students who graduate college (90% of IDEA students qualify for free and reduced lunch, the federal proxy for income status), it’s still not reaching 77%, the graduation rate for their more affluent peers.

Some traditional colleges and universities are rethinking their own approaches to nontraditional students, beginning with a streamlining process to eliminate the expert level bureaucracy navigation required to simply enroll.

Perhaps no group of students faces a more grueling obstacle course between themselves and their dreams are the DREAMers. Because of the locations IDEA serves, many of their students qualify for DACA, the program created by Barack Obama and repealed by Donald Trump, leaving 800,000 young people in limbo as to weather or not they will be allowed to stay in the country they consider home.

For 100 DACA students enrolled at IDEA University, the Shapiro Foundation will cover 100% of tuition costs, Torkelson announced at the luncheon. The Massachusetts-based Shapiro Foundation principally works with refugee populations, including college tuition support for those living in the U.S.

To say Torkelson doesn’t get political would be, well, incorrect. The IDEA founder is notoriously outspoken on the politics surrounding education, and while he does’t want to “get political” on DACA itself, he did express support for the DREAMers who live, work, serve, and worship in the United States.

“What could be more American than that?” Torkelson said.

Later Torkelson expanded on that support, telling reporters that regardless of where the DACA policy discussion ended up, educating these students would be a boon for the country.

“I’ve never heard that the problem we have in America is too many undocumented workers who are too well educated,” Torkelson said.

KIPP, another charter school serving low income students has seen success with KIPP Through College, a support program that follows KIPP graduates to and through college. San Antonio ISD recently enlisted the help of KIPP San Antonio to enact supports for its own alumni.

IDEA University is part of the same basket of strategies, Torkelson said. Online courses offer flexibility, but a collaborative workspace where students are required to log at least 15 hours per week adds the accountability and social support. The district is also placing staff on campus at key colleges, University of Texas – RGV and University of Texas at San Antonio, to help kids keep momentum at those schools.

The first IDEA University in the Rio Grande Valley, where IDEA originated, opened this school year with 50 students. The San Antonio campus will be the second site, opening in fall 2019 with 100 students.

While IDEA has been churning out graduates in the Rio Grande Valley long enough to have college graduation data, IDEA San Antonio will graduate its first class next year. For San Antonio students, these to-and-through-college supports will be in place from day one, said executive director Rolando Posada.


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