Morgan Richards stumbled across Global Freshman Academy (GFA) while raising three kids in Dubai. The 31-year-old American abroad was looking to gather credits toward a bachelor’s degree she started—but didn't complete—over a decade ago. Richards is an anthropologist, curious about the social and psychological causes of intra-human violence. Between her kids and her full-time job, getting credits seemed impractical. That is, until she found GFA, the partnership between Arizona State University (ASU) and edX.
John Tobin found the Starbucks College Achievement Plan (SCAP) after years of trying to scrape together credits while working full-time. He remembers the stress of racing home from a Starbucks shift, showering and getting ready for class followed by a commute to campus and a fight for parking. The efficiency and flexibility of the collaboration between Starbucks and ASU transformed his experience. Starbucks sponsors his education and he can learn online with a flexible schedule around changing shift hours. Tobin holds no commitment to continue as a shift supervisor now that he has his degree.
Richards started with a Human Origins class: typing, chatting, watching, learning. “I’ll just pop open my laptop for an hour or so after kids going to bed” she says. It worked for her. And now, eight classes deep, she’s nearly finished with her first year of ASU, never having to stumble sleepily into that 8:30 a.m. lecture hall with dozens of other sweatshirt-clad teens and 20-somethings. Tobin took a year and a half to finish his bachelor's of science degree in health science after enrolling in ASU.
Degree-less anthropologists from Dubai may be few and far between, but for many of the nearly 5 million working students above the age of 30 (according to this Georgetown study), finishing the bachelor’s degree is no easy task. Tobin reflects on the “years in limbo trying to decide on an academic path, switching majors and dropping classes because I was too tired from working all day.” When the barriers to entry include money, age, jobs and children, “personalization” has a different ring to it. If ASU can make obtaining credits ruthlessly efficient and customizable, can it bring in new students—students who otherwise would not get a degree?
Critics certainly think so, and they're not necessarily enthused about it. In early 2015, Jonathan Reese, a professor of history at Colorado State University responded to the announcement of GFA with skepticism: “They are willing to re-define what education is so that they can get more students from anywhere.” By reaching students like Richards and Tobin, ASU can expand its market. Reese claims, “The result is that schools which stick to reasonable standards with respect to the frequency and possibility of teacher/student interaction now have to fear for their very existence.”
With both GFA and SCAP, ASU personalizes and lowers the cost of courses for students, scaling up its offerings. It’s tapping into untapped markets. It’s changed many students lives for the better, while critics worry that the long-term effects on education quality and labor market structures outweigh any immediate benefits.
A Gateway Drug for Adult Learners
GFA awards credits for entry-level first year courses like English Composition, Human Origins and Introduction to Sociology. For Richards, the program will cost less than $5,500—approximately the same cost of tuition and books for a single semester on campus. And she doesn’t have to pay for the credits until she’s completed the course.
For-credit personalized learning jumpstarted her re-entry to higher education. Back in Phoenix, with her general requirements out of the way, she’s now applying to the very school that awarded her credit, saying, “I do feel like it will help my chances of getting in to ASU.”
After a successful online experience, she’s curious about the transition from the laptop to the classroom, especially as a non-traditional student. “I know that some people are good at online courses, and some people are good at in-person. Even though I am older, and I have kids, and I’m a little out of touch, I don’t want for that to affect my admission chances. I don’t want to be seen as someone too out of date or out of touch to function in that environment.”
GFA worked for Richards, allowing her to complete work for weekly deadlines when she needed from wherever she was. Personalized learning was a gateway drug, a scaleable taste-test, a financially accessible entry-point to degree completion.
Anonymity in That Safe Space
GFA courses also facilitated a comfortable learning environment for Richards. “Everyone feels very enthusiastic and comfortable asking questions online—even if they are stupid questions—because there is an anonymous bit to it.” But in the next year, Richards will transition from the safe space of her laptop, with her diverse, international community of peers, and into a classroom of teenagers and 20-somethings.
Though initially intimidated by online learning, Tobin echoes Richards, “Freedom of anonymity to a degree empowers the user to voice opinion with conviction, without fear of judgment. It creates opinion-based constructive feedback for all persons involved. I imagine some users find it more liberating than others.” Conversations happen in the virtual space that wouldn’t happen in real life. There’s less judgement when you’re merely a username on a class discussion page.
Richards says she’s a little anxious about setting foot on campus. “I don’t want to feel out of date.” But she insists she would be a valuable addition to the in-person classroom. “What would make me feel better is that I would be the one bringing life experiences. I think that would help bring relief to the stress. Especially with anthro, a lot has happened and been found outside of the USA. Many of these places, I have been to, touched the soil.”
For these adult learners, personalization provided an alternative pathway to acquiring a degree. But critics question the quality of these programs aimed to broaden access to credits. John Warner, Inside Higher Ed blogger and editor at McSweeney's, challenges ASU’s model: “They are increasing enrollment and cutting deals with Starbucks in an effort to hoover up ‘market share,’ which to my knowledge is not a recognized trait of quality education. They are a corporation where non-tenurable labor functions as engines of surplus in order to support a corporate hierarchy.”
Is this the realization of the corporate digital diploma mill or an unprecedented opportunity for Richard and Tobin’s upward mobility?
Richards will, if accepted, attend ASU soon, buoyed by a collection of credits that will allow her to jump straight into studying anthropology hands-on. Tobin just graduated and is exploring his next steps. Neither has pulled out a loan for these programs. Richards claims, “When your standard methods of higher education don’t work for folks who can’t pay, or are working or have kids, Global Freshman Academy is a game-changer to a lot of people—one that hopefully will set the bar for different methods for people to achieve their-higher education goals. And that’s a really awesome thing.”