Our Work / Published Feb 25

EdNavigator at Duet: When College Students Are Parents, Too

At EdNavigator, we work with partners from hotel chains to construction companies to institutions of higher education. Next, we’re teaming up with Duet, a Boston-based organization that supports working adults to obtain college degrees through Southern New Hampshire University’s online program. Many of Duet’s students are also parents, and we’ve all seen how challenging it is to juggle work and education, while also giving everything to your own children. So we’re thrilled to partner with Duet to bring our navigation services to their students. We sat down with Liz Marino, Duet’s Chief of Growth and Strategy, to learn more about how Duet is making college work better for working adults.

“I’ve spent most of my career in educational access. Through that work, I came to see the ways college is not working for a lot of people. More than 50 percent of people going to college today are working adults. They're commuting, they have kids, they have jobs, and yet almost all colleges are not designed for them. If you work in retail, you get your hours every week, so it's almost impossible to enroll in a college class that has a set weekly schedule. Same if you have childcare that changes. If you're working 40 hours a week and trying to take classes around your work schedule, it might take you six, eight, 10 years to finish. Then you have a real question about return on investment. And hiring data shows that most jobs being created today require a bachelor's degree or an associate degree at least. So people are really stuck.

All of this contributes to what we see as a ‘college dropout crisis.’ There's a narrative out there that if you work hard enough, you graduate from college. Our experience is that success isn’t about academic skills or persistence. It’s really about removing structural barriers. So that’s what Duet is doing with Southern New Hampshire University, our university partner.

We do student support and student services, from enrollment right through job coaching, and SNHU does the academics. SNHU has had an on-campus program for 100 years, but in the last decade they have also become the most prominent liberal arts online college. They serve about 150,000 students all over the world that way. In partnership with Duet and some other organizations, they also offer a separate online degree path that results in the same degrees, but instead of earning credits by doing the coursework and taking a test at the end, you earn them by completing and mastering workplace-based projects. So you're getting a mix of liberal arts skills and workplace skills, like PowerPoint, Excel, business writing, communication skills. And because the work is project-based, the schedule becomes infinitely flexible. We’re finding that students actually get through their degrees faster, because it's just more efficient to put the student in charge of the schedule. And they’ve also designed their model to be low cost.

So that’s all Southern New Hampshire University. But doing an online degree with tons of flexibility, all on your own, would be hard for most of us. That’s where Duet comes in. Our students range from 19 to 65, but most of them are in their mid-to-late twenties. They’re working, and they really want to get that degree done and done quickly. When you get introduced to us, you work with an enrollment coach to figure out is this the right program? Is now the right time? We help you complete financial aid applications, all that.

Once you're enrolled, you have a team of coaches whose job it is to help you get your degree done as quickly as possible. They set goals with you. They’re looking at the work with you. They’re the relationship anchor, the accountability buddy, the cheerleader. We have an in-person student center in downtown Boston, open seven days a week. We provide free lunch and dinner every day. We bring in babysitters on the weekends. And finally, every student receives an employment coach. A lot of our students are working in hourly jobs, and we help them move to jobs where they’re getting benefits and have upward mobility as soon as they get that credential. We really think a college degree should be a proxy for a living wage. If we can help people get degrees, but we can't help them turn those degrees into high-quality jobs, we have not been all that useful.

About a third of our students are parents. And that’s where the partnership with EdNavigator comes in. We have students coming to us saying, ‘Hey, I've got to start looking at school selection for my kids. Do you guys know anything about that?’ Or, ‘I want to be doing more school work, but I'm struggling to access high-quality childcare.’ That is not our area of expertise. So now we’re able to offer that support to our students through EdNavigator. Because you know if you're a parent—which I am—and there's something going on with your kids, everything else is off the table.

Then on the other hand, Navigators also understand the Duet opportunity, so they can share it with their members when it might be a good fit for them or for their kids. We actually have had multiple families where Mom and her grown kids are all enrolled and doing school together, which is so cool. So we’re so excited about growing this partnership.

In the world of college access, we’ve too often tried to put Band-Aids on students. Like, how can we bubble wrap you so that when we push you into this system that's so poorly designed, you have a chance of getting through unscathed? Duet’s belief is that the busy working adult does not need to do anything differently. We just have to redesign college with this student in mind.”

-Liz Marino, Chief of Growth and Strategy, Duet