OpenIDEO Challenges Innovators to Reimagine the Cost of College

By Marguerite McNeal

Talk about sticker shock. The price of a college degree has been rising faster than the price of other goods and services since the early 1990s, due to factors including state divestment and shrinking endowments. Student debt is at an all-time high of $1.2 trillion.

While the college affordability situation has led some to question the value of a degree, others are thinking about ways to reverse—or at least curb—the trend. OpenIDEO, global design firm IDEO’s open innovation platform, launched an online challenge in October to spark ideas that reimagine the cost of college in the U.S. OpenIDEO allows a global community to work together to create and refine solutions to pressing social issues.

The Higher Ed challenge, sponsored by UBS, focused on increasing college access among lower-income, first-generation college students. Through a guided process called the Path to Pitching, ideas in the OpenIDEO challenge were encouraged to complete human-centered milestones. 

"The Higher Ed Challenge was a dynamic way to bring ideas with truly innovative ways of tackling college access in the U.S. to life," says Jason Rissman, managing director at OpenIDEO. Six of the crowdsourced solutions were invited to pitch their work to accelerators this past Wednesday. Here we take a look at each of the participants.

Tuition Heroes

Tuition Heroes incentivizes U.S. colleges and universities to keep their tuition in line with normal inflation rates.

How does it work?

The company calculates the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of tuition for U.S. colleges and universities over four years. Those with a CAGR of 2.5 percent or less achieve “Tuition Hero” status and can redeem a badge to display on their websites and in marketing materials. The concept is similar to the way the Energy Star badge gives efficient appliances brand recognition.

Business model?

Tuition Heroes will charge institutions $100 for a badge activation fee and will also help them launch fundraising campaigns for need-based or merit-based scholarships.


PelotonU matches working adults who want a college degree to online programs, and provides an office where they study and receive additional tutoring and mentorship.

How does it work?

Students apply and begin provisional enrollment, during which time PelotonU staff help them find the online universities that match their long-term goals. The Austin, Texas-based nonprofit provides office space where students can study and career coaches and on-demand tutors. It guarantees students will graduate debt-free.

Business model?

PelotonU is a nonprofit. Pell grants fund tuition, employers pay for student support and local donors provide gap funding.

One Day Experience

Think of One Day Experience as a matchmaker for young adults who aren’t ready to choose a career and professionals who can give them a taste of working in their industry.

How does it work?

The Barcelona-based company connects 15-to 24-year-olds with professionals in their fields of interest and gives them a chance to shadow these mentors on the job for a day. The company provides “vouchers” that young adults use to cash in for one day on the job with experts in industries they want to experience.

Business model?

One Day Experience will charge money for the experience vouchers.

ALEX—Anyone’s Learning Experience

Colleges and universities waste about 2 million empty seats in courses each year, according to the founders of Anyone’s Learning Experience, a marketplace for online and in-person individual courses.

How does it work?

People who want to take college courses, whether they’re switching careers or pursuing a degree for the first time, log in to the platform and view university courses that have extra room. The Boston-based company lets users enroll in individual classes that match their interest. ALEX is piloting programs at Boise State and the University of Albany

Business model?

Students pay for individual classes at institutions and ALEX takes a commision of the sale.

Brighter Investment

Similar to microlending platform Kiva, Brighter Investment enables people to support university education for high-potential students in developing countries who face financial barriers to getting their degree.

How does it work?

Aspiring students sign up with the platform and apply to the university of their choice. Vancouver-based Brighter Investment pools together funds from investors to cover the cost of tuition and living expenses.

Business model?

Students repay a percentage of their income for a set period of time after graduation.


1Gen2Fund is a crowdfunding platform that helps first-generation students successfully complete a four-year college degree.

How does it work?

The SaaS platform gives first-gen students who meet certain criteria a place to ask for financial help, receive e-coaching and resources. Students ask directly for funds versus competing for individual scholarships, while alumni and other donors sign up to provide financial support and mentorship.

Business model?

1Gen2Fund is a nonprofit and operates on a percentage of donations.

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