AUSTIN - When competing in a bicycle race, the "Peloton" is the main group of riders that stays together. By riding close to one another, the cyclists can do their job more easily and go faster as well. An Austin nonprofit is using this name and concept to help adults get their college degrees.
Cori McCorkle grew up in Georgetown and graduated from Georgetown High School. She comes from a big family with 19 cousins -- few of whom went to college.
"It really wasn't something that was an option for me out of high school," McCorkle said. "It wasn't really discussed."
McCorkle now is working full-time as a licensed esthetician. Even so, she wants to have that option now; she wants a degree.
"I want to have that type of education, and I want to feel equal to my peers where nowadays, so many people have bachelor's degrees at the minimum."
However, McCorkle tried going back both online and in school. Every time, though, she has faced too many obstacles to make it work.
"Trying to figure out how, as a working adult, you can go back to college is just so difficult," McCorkle said.
Right when McCorkle was applying for food stamps in early 2016, she ran across the Austin non-profit PelotonU, which works to provide Austin students with a debt-free path to a college education.
"I was crying within the first conversation because it was the first person who had ever said, 'We're here to help you,'" McCorkle said. "I was just so relieved because no one had ever offered to genuinely help me like that."
PelotonU is unique in that it provides the flexibility of an online course with the structure of an in-class college lesson. Students build their own schedules around their work schedule and life -- but then are provided with a mentor or coach who meets with them in person at a PelotonU classroom to help with accountability.
While PelotonU is not a university, the students attend an online university that works in partnership with the non-profit, like Southern New Hampshire University's College for American program or Western Governors University's online program. PelotonU does, though, provide financial scholarships for its students that helps cover the cost of tuition to the university they choose to attend.
Then, from a support system perspective, PelotonU provides mentors for guidance and accountability. Holly Boerner is the Assistant Director of College Completion at the non-profit and is also a mentor for some of the students. She said while she has taught in classrooms throughout her career, there is something different about PelotonU.
"Not only do they have time to take their classes, students learn budgeting skills, formulas for Excel and just practical lessons you need in everyday life," Boerner said. "For most of our students, it really is kind of the best of both worlds -- especially for students who have tried at another setup before for college and weren't successful."
One of Boerner's students she mentors, who did in fact try other online courses before started at PelotonU, is Austin single mother Deseree Hargrove.
"I'm not able to sit in a classroom for a couple hours a couple days out of the week," Hargrove said. "My mentor won't admit it, but she's like my therapist. She helps me deal with whatever is going on in my life, along with my classwork."
Not only has PelotonU created a unique environment, 70 percent of the organization's students are the first in their family to go to college. 90 percent are working while they go to college and 60 percent tried to go to college in the past. Of all these students so far, 80 percent of the students who have started school while in PelotonU are still in college or have graduated.
Van Davis is a board member at PelotonU and said he hopes to see these high rates remain intact as the organization continues to grow.
"It's not just that a student is talking to somebody on a screen 1,200 miles away," Davis said. "They're coming to the office. They're meeting with an advisor. They're creating a community of colleagues. That is hard to replicate in many places that aren't set up with our traditional model that is still based on agrarian calendars."
Both Cori McCorkle and Deseree Hargrove have earned their associate's degrees since starting at PelotonU and both are in the process of earning their bachelor's degrees.
PelotonU is currently based out of The Austin Stone's St. John campus and has a second campus located in South Austin. The nonprofit will soon have its 100th student enrolled in the next few months.
To learn more about PelotonU, you can click here.
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