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Community Highlights: Meet Sarah Saxton-Frump of PelotonU

Today we’d like to introduce you to Sarah Saxton-Frump.

Alright, so thank you so much for sharing your story and insight with our readers. To kick things off, can you tell us a bit about how you got started?
Before PelotonU, I was a high school teacher and principal on the east side. After working with talented, hard-working students for seven years – students who also happened to be the first in their family to head to college – I found myself increasingly frustrated with the way that existing higher ed options were serving some of my most beloved students. The more digging I did, the more I found out that most colleges and universities were graduating very few of their first-generation students or their students of color… sometimes as few as 3-6%! Fast forward seven years, and here we are at PelotonU, redesigning the college experience with our students to ensure it works for ALL students.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Oh goodness, no. Building the ship as you sail it, so to speak, means sprouting leaks and plugging holes constantly. We almost closed early on, after the first version of our model taught us a lot about what did NOT work for students. We’ve struggled with student recruitment over the years because a lot of our students have tried college, not been successful, and decided college wasn’t for them – so when we’re recruiting, they’re not necessarily looking to come back. And while we’re fortunate to have built a nonprofit model that involves some earned revenue, we have about eight month working capital gaps and so making sure we can make payroll and pay rent on time was tenuous in the early years.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about PelotonU?
PelotonU is an Austin-based nonprofit that helps working adults – but really, anyone from 17-57! – earn college degrees while working or raising a family. Ultimately, our vision is that any student with the will and drive to graduate from college can earn a degree, regardless of geography or economics. We started, though, because today’s college student has changed. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 71% of students are now post-traditional – they’re older than 24, commuting to college, working at least 20 hours a week, attending school part-time or caring for a dependent. Their needs aren’t met by the traditional, fixed structure of college and universities haven’t evolved quickly enough to support the new normal college student. The result? 45 million Americans have some college and no degree, and just 16% of part-time students earn a credential – that’s 250,000 folks right here in central Texas. Below this lies a deeper issue, a structural one. Where college was once the engine of economic mobility, it now perpetuates inequity.

Only 8% of students from the lowest income quartile will ever earn a college degree, compared to 80% of their high-income peers. PelotonU developed a model in 2012 to ensure working adults have the flexibility and support to earn their degree while fitting school around commitments to their family and career. The approach – called a hybrid college – blends affordable, flexible degree programs designed for adults with a dedicated coach who ensures students graduate. To date, we have served more than 350 students with a 78% persistence rate, compared to 16% for part-time learners in Central Texas. We’ve also celebrated over 110 degrees thus far, with our Bachelor’s degree earners seeing over $22,000 in wage increases six months after graduation. These results attracted interest from other cities, and PelotonU helped catalyze the growth of the field from three hybrid colleges to fifteen supporting over 2,500 working adults. A thriving ecosystem of practitioners has emerged, with leaders sharing best practices and auxiliary organizations forming to provide scaffolding and resources for the field.

Is there anyone you’d like to thank or give credit to?
So many people deserve credit – our students, who have built this program with us, our Board, especially Rex Gore who came up with the original idea and pitched it to my incredible co-founder, Hudson Board, back in 2011, and our staff who have treated PelotonU like their own family and helped us grow, improve, and learn these past nine years. We wouldn’t have made it without so many leaders and entrepreneurs in the city of Austin, as well as early funders, but Zoe Schlag, formerly of UnLtd USA and TechStars, as well as Mark Hand and Trevor Boehm, who worked with Zoe and became friends and mentors to us, really stand out. So, too, does Mary Ellen Pietruszynski and the Sooch Foundation and David Porter and Glimmer Austin, who were early supporters and funders.

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Image Credits
Minette Hand

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