What if for your entire life higher education seemed like an unattainable dream, and one day the opportunity to attend college became a completely debt-free reality — would you take it? In Austin, a new program, PelotonU, is not only offering a debt-free college degree, but job placement and one-on-one mentorship in hopes of changing the lives of economically disadvantaged youth.
Created by two individuals who believe in higher education for all — Rex Gore, an Austin-based entrepreneur and philanthropist, and Hudson Baird, a public policy graduate from Vanderbilt University — PelotonU is not your typical pathway to a college degree.
Aimed towards students “unlikely to start or complete a bachelor’s degree on time,” candidates are submitted by teachers and religious leaders and selected upon their “employability and compatibility” skills. Students must also pass a drug test, as well as show strong work ethic and the ability to cohabitate. Currently in its second semester, the program fosters seven all-male students and is hoping to expand to 25 male and female students next semester.
Upon acceptance, students move into PelotonU's “dorms,” three beautifully furnished apartments (pool and volleyball court included!) located off Riverside Drive. Once settled in, the group begins its two-year online business degree through the accredited New Charter University. After much research, Gore and Baird chose New Charter due to what Baird calls its “competency based program." Students can take their tests when they feel confident that they truly understand the material. And at $796 a semester, it is also one of the most inexpensive online college platforms available.
Studying online has proven to be challenging for some students, but the adjustment has mostly been a positive one. “So far I’m catching the vibe for online education,” says student Jacob Ramirez. “The fact of not having an instructor physically is not always a bad thing. It puts more responsibility on us to take the initiative on studying and learning.”
"While we don't know what we want to do long-term, our short-term goals are acquiring our bachelor's degree, meeting people with different careers, learning new life skills and becoming more independent,” says Ramirez.
But school is not the students' only focus. Through job placements within the program, individuals acquire part-time work in order to pay for their education and housing. Though PelotonU is debt-free, students are still expected to pay for 90 percent of their expenses. That leaves a 10 percent deficiency that PelotonU is currently footing. This system, Baird says, was established in order to teach the students smart money management for life after school.
Another significant component of the program is teaching the students how to share, cook, clean and interact with one another. Each night, a different student cooks for the group — and it’s not always easy. “Not having someone cook your meal or clean your room has been a tough adjustment,” Ramirez says. “It’s forced us to share and take more responsibility.”
In the communal room, a schedule sits on the wall with a list of rotating chores administered to each student. The “RA” of the dorms is Baird. Always there with a smile and an ear, the jovial young man provides mentorship and support. Helping others is nothing new to Baird — he also helped start the Manna Project International, a nonprofit aimed towards educating and inspiring youth, in Guatemala.
“I have the opportunity to now give my time, my knowledge and my life to another group,” says Baird. “I was only impacted by people who did the same for me when I was growing up, so it’s imperative that I do the same for someone else.”
As a writer and filmmaker, I had the privilege of dining at the dorm on one of their “mentor nights,” sharing my own story while also hearing the histories and aspirations of the young students. Many come from backgrounds marred with financial hardship and will be the first in their families to attend college.
Once they complete the two-year program, students can continue on to a four-year online degree or transfer to a local school. For some, they’re taking it one step at a time. "While we don't know what we want to do long-term, our short-term goals are acquiring our bachelor's degree, meeting people with different careers, learning new life skills and becoming more independent,” says Ramirez.
The cultural significance of PelotonU is something that founders Gore and Baird don’t take lightly. “Higher education isn't working for the people who could benefit the most from post-secondary education,” says Baird. “There are significant problems in college access, college cost, college persistence and college learning. We think students don't just want to learn academics, they want to learn how to live in the world. They want to be a part of something that offers community.”
With innovative thinkers using the opportunities that technology makes accessible to us, programs like PelotonU impart the message that higher education is a possibility — without the high price tag.