Keen to distance themselves from founder’s legal woes, New College strives to save a ‘good idea’ for low-income students
The explosive federal indictment of a well-known educator will delay the planned opening of a new experimental college he helped design for low-income first-generation students. But that won’t stop it, the project’s new CEO recently said.
“We’ll open in fall 2022 for sure,” Chandell Stone said.
In the meantime, she and others at Degrees of Freedom, as it is called, are doing what they can to gently sever ties with the suspect in the criminal case and the non-profit organization he created.
“Social business incubator” Democracy Builders announced last year that it was buying the South Vermont campus of Marlboro College to create a two-year hybrid program for high schools and early colleges. Last month, organizers told supporters the program will welcome its first students in September.
On April 27, that all changed: The Office of the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced that the founder of the nonprofit, Seth Andrew, had been accused in the event of electronic fraud, money laundering and false declarations to a financial institution. If found guilty, he faces up to 70 years in prison.
A founder of the famous Democracy Prep charter school network and a senior education advisor to Pres. Obama, Andrew, 42, allegedly stole $ 218,005 from a network account in 2019 in order to get a lower interest rate on a mortgage for a nearly $ 2.4 million apartment in Manhattan, said the prosecutors. He was scheduled to plead not guilty and declined to comment for this article.
After word of Andrews’ indictment spread, Democracy Builders held an emergency meeting to remove him as chairman of the board.
Stone last week said that efforts to separate the new college from alleged crime go even further: When Degrees of Freedom is incorporated this month, it will have no formal connection to Andrew. She and the members of the board of directors of Democracy Builders “are working amicably to separate the entities, in order to allow a formal incorporation without Seth Andrew”.
The first problem: Degrees of Freedom doesn’t actually own the Marlboro campus – Democracy Builders in fact. This complicated the college’s efforts to open as planned, Stone said.
“We would love to be in Marlboro, but the reality is it just happened last week – and we were saying to the kids, ‘Come to campus’. And I just didn’t feel comfortable with all the dust. “
The developments mean it will be at least another year before more than a handful of students can participate in what many observers see as a promising experiment.
When he announced the new college in 2020, Andrew said Inside higher education that the company represented “a new model of higher education that does not exist for most children”.
To that end, Democracy Builders spent $ 1.7 million to buy the 500-acre Marlboro Campus, a small liberal arts college that, like many of them, was facing declining enrollment. In 2019, it merged with Emerson College in Boston, sending students and faculty.
Degrees of Freedom hosted what it called a small, successful pilot of its model with 20 students last fall, and plans to offer a low-residency hybrid program that would require students to be on campus for only two weeks per quarter, or six weeks per year. . For the remainder of the academic year, they are expected to study online, with learning tied to their majors.
The program website actually has two separate programs: three trimesters “Year of freedom, “for high school students, summer included, priced at $ 9,000, which offers SAT and ACT preparation, support for college applications and an option for international travel, among other offerings. It is open to high school students with 2.5 GPA, as well as to GED holders who are not enrolled in university.
For $ 18,000, high school graduates and GED holders can enroll in a two-year period. “Release launch“Designed to help them” access competitive colleges. “
Stone said the program will also allow alumni to find full-time employment in their area of concentration or access technology-focused boot camps that many low-income students typically do not attend.
“What we want to do is figure out: how can we get low-income students, first-generation students, to high-paying careers, and do it with zero dollars in student debt?” she said. Because Degrees of Freedom is “reverse-engineering the Pell Scholarship program,” basing its costs on the maximum allocation of the Federal Student Grant, she said, low-income students should expect to earn their money. diploma without debt.
Kevin Carey, who heads the education policy program at New America, the left-wing Washington, DC think tank, said it was a laudable – and unusual – goal for a tech-focused college.
“You only do this if you start with the point of view of ‘How can I build a college that is good for low income students? Nobody does that. The approach to technology is: “How do I make money?” “
Richard Saudek, an attorney from Montpelier, Vermont, who chairs the Marlboro board of directors, said the board chose Degrees of Freedom because “the people involved were quite experienced in setting up schools that served underserved populations ”.
Marlboro officials, he said, “felt their plans seemed to make sense – and that it would be a good thing to do, basically, get them to buy the campus at a low price. And we had a lot. hope. “
Saudek said the sale of the campus would not be affected by Andrew’s legal issues. The transaction did not include any “clawback” or cancellation clauses. “They had to do what they could with it,” he said.
Nonetheless, he admitted that the trustees “were watching this unfold and were alarmed when they learned of the indictment.”
New America’s Carey had a similar response when he read the news: “Part of my reaction to it all, beyond ‘What the hell? was ‘Too bad. It’s just going to kill this thing.’ “
He recalls hearing Andrew’s speech as the program was taking shape: Rather than forcing students to borrow $ 20,000 to attend “a commendable for-profit college” or take on even more debt to attend college. four years without a degree, Carey said he was intrigued by the idea of using blended learning to cut costs so low that a student could cover them entirely with a Pell scholarship.
“At its most basic level, it’s a good idea,” said Carey.
For now, much of the effort relies on funding from the Silicon Valley investor. Combiner Y, as well as a group of wealthy donors, to help keep it afloat. In an April 8 email to supporters ahead of his indictment, Andrew urged them to “help us identify funders for our work.” Advocacy linked to a direct donation site for college. Andrew noted: “All of our costs for tuition and board less than a Pell scholarship. However, we need some philanthropy until we break even at ~ 500 students, which we hope to achieve in 2022. “
Stone said recent developments have affected fundraising and a few donors have pulled out. “We are now working to recover the grants for which Seth was the main point of contact,” she said.
It is significant that the idea of degrees of freedom originated in the world of K-12 charter schools, said Carey. Unlike most new online universities, which are generally for-profit, charter schools have historically provided educators with ways to create mission-oriented, nonprofit schools that help low-income students.
“There is no comparable mechanism in higher education for this,” he said.
The irony is that Stone and others now find themselves working both to listen to the needs of these students and to part ways with Andrew, whose work has long been synonymous with the charter schools that serve them.
“My goal is to stay focused on ‘How can we continue to raise their voices? “” She said. “‘How do we make sure that their voices are not drowned out by a personal matter that really has nothing to do with them, and with this project?'”
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