How an Innovative College Model Accelerates Degree Completion and Lowers Cost

Rivet School in Richmond, California, is one of a small handful of new “hybrid colleges” across the country. These institutions are pairing online degrees with robust, real-world support for working adults. 

This model is currently of increased interest as higher education tries to support 100% remote learning due to the pandemic. Research has shown that students are more likely to drop out of online programs as preexisting achievement gaps widen. This is particularly true for nontraditional college students.

Rivet School specifically targets students who might otherwise struggle in a conventional online environment. Nearly all Riveters work full-time; 80 percent are Black or Latinx; and nearly half are parents. By offering a flexible, low-cost curriculum through partners such as Southern New Hampshire University and Brandman University, Rivet School combines the curriculum with coaching, tutoring, free laptop, cash stipends, and an emergency fund. In one version of the program, students pay nothing up front and pay after they graduate. 

Unique Differentiators 

In most traditional student success models, coaches rely on students to self-report their challenges. And coaches usually have students at different universities around the country, so they don’t have the network that can help them help students. 

However, each Rivet coach supports approximately 50 students, compared to community colleges at which one advisor is responsible, on average, for 1,700 students. However, a personal coach at the Rivet School is quite different from a college advisor. In addition to the students having anytime access to their personal coach, the coach advisors have real-time access to the curriculum, academic data, and the feedback students are getting from course instructors. Coaches are also trained to provide academic tutoring. By simplifying channel communication, coaches become a one-stop-shop to support students for most situations. 

The second innovation at the Rivet School is that the curriculum is competency-based and not ruled by seat- or calendar-time. The Rivet School is not a Title IV university itself, but a 501C nonprofit organization. The institution partners with accredited universities with existing competency-based programs. This type of education support works really well with students who have a lot going on in their lives as it creates flexibility with real-world schedules.

The flexibility of the academic experience, along with structured experiences that help coaches create accountability guidelines and deadlines, helps students to stay on track. In the competency-based environment, there is always an opportunity for students to resubmit work if they’re not happy with their first submission.

Two Rivet School students with laptop computer

(Image credit: Rivet School)

A Better Option for Some Students 

At Rivet, there are a limited number of degree programs. The school partners with specialized programs so coaches can meet all the needs that students may have. Building out the infrastructure so that the coaches can solve specific problems means that they are deeply immersed and integrated into the program.

Early data suggests that the model is working. Half of the program’s 115 students are on track to earn bachelor degrees in less than three years. One Rivet School graduate, Alanza Mirabella, credits the program with helping her earn a long-deferred college degree and exposing her to new career possibilities. “I started looking for a degree and ended with dreams and a whole new outlook on life,” Mirabella says.

“We’re often surprised by how poorly higher education works for some students,” says Eli Bildner, co-executive director of Rivet School. “Nine out of ten California community college students do not graduate on time. The default is failure, so the current situation is not working.”

And across California state colleges, the four-year higher ed experience is a myth for most students, says Bildner. “The four-year graduation rate is low—between 25 and 30 percent—and transfers from community colleges take an average of six-plus years to earn a bachelor degree.”

While online learning is an option for students, by itself it is often a disaster. It’s the addition of the personal coach relationship, paired with a flexible degree program, that changes outcomes. Students have a core relationship with a coach who is trained to help them with anything. 

The student-centric model of Rivet School is critical to its success, says Chris Nelson, managing director of the Doris & Donald Fisher Fund. “We believe that traditional higher education isn’t working for too many students,” Nelson says. “We’re inspired by Rivet School’s approach to creating a more affordable, accelerated, and career focused pathway to a degree.” 

Other philanthropic backers include well-known national companies such as Google, NewSchools Venture Fund, the Walmart Foundation, and the Charles Koch Foundation, as well as prominent regional funders such as the Chamberlin Family Foundation and the James Irvine Foundation. 

Annie Galvin Teich has more than 25 years' experience in education writing and publishing. She is an edtech industry expert in content marketing and copywriting. As a regular contributor to Tech & Learning she focuses on the information needs of district decision makers.