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Phil Bronner, CEO, Quad Learning, US

The community college transfer model – where students spend two years at a college before moving into years three and four of a university degree –  is a popular route to undergraduate study in the US, and more colleges are now extending it to international students. Phil Bronner, CEO of Quad Learning, explains how Quad works with community colleges to provide support and tailored pathways to degrees for international students.

The PIE: What inspired you to set up Quad Learning?

Phil Bronner, Quad Learning

"Given the dynamic aspect of the student marketplace, institutions need to move more quickly than they have historically"

PB: I founded Quad Learning because the cost of education in the US has grown significantly over the last 30 years and the company was initially founded to focus on providing more affordable paths to top US institutions.

Since that time, we’ve really focused more of our attention around being the partner of choice for institutions, as they seek to serve new student segments, and so that includes both domestic as well as international students.

“The company was founded to focus on providing more affordable paths to top US institutions”

The PIE: So talk me through the programme you’re offering.

PB: Our initial programme is in partnership with US community colleges as well as US universities. We have nine community college partners and over 70 university partners, and the programme is a two-year experience at the community college, designed to prepare talented students to succeed at top US institutions. The programme is called American Honors.

There are a few interesting elements to the programme that lead to its success. The first is the selected admissions process – the average [high school] GPA of the students is about a 3.5. Community colleges in the US are what they call open access institutions, and that means they accept all the students that apply to them, and often, students come to community colleges for a variety of reasons. This programme is specifically designed for the transfer student.

We also work very closely with the institution to create courses that are offered at the community college level but have the rigour of a top US university, and so we work with the school in that regard. At the heart of the programme is what we call an ‘intense advising model’, so we have advisors that work with students on a 120-1 student to advisor ratio, very focused on the transition from either a domestic US high school into college.

“We encourage the student to apply to not to two schools, but to six. Some should be ‘reach schools’ but you need a safety school as well”

There’s quite a bit of transition needed there, but also for students around the world who are studying in the US for the first time – we have advisors that work very closely with them on the transition from their host country into US higher education.

The last component of the programme is the transfer side. We have a holistic approach to transfer, our advisors work closely with the students, and take them through a process that sort of exposes them to the breadth of universities that are in the United States. They then go through an application process, where we encourage the student to apply to not to two schools, but to six, and of those six, some should be ‘reach schools’ that you would be delighted to go to but you also need a safety school as well.

And we also have relationships directly with institutions to ensure that credits transfer and that’s about 40-50% of where students end up transferring post-graduation from the community college.

The PIE: Quite a high proportion of domestic students at university come via community colleges, but only a small proportion of international students do the same. Do you hope to increase this?

“Given the growth of the global middle class, there are a number of students who are very interested in studying in the US but often can’t afford it”

PB: Absolutely, and one of the reasons why we started to support international students through this programme was because of the interest. What we’re finding is given the growth of the global middle class, there are a number of students who are very interested in studying in the US but often can’t afford it, so they end up going to Canada or Singapore or even staying in country.

This programme makes US higher education more affordable and we’re seeing students who again would not necessarily have the funds to attend a US institution, who are taking this path as a way to get an affordable degree.

The PIE: Where do those students come from?

PB: Right now, we’re seeing them from over 30 countries and we’re seeing them from around the world, clearly from places like China, South East Asia, Africa, South America.

The PIE: What’s your background – how did you get involved in international education?

PB: I was a venture capitalist. I started with a venture capital firm in Washington, DC back in 1999, and I was an investor for over 14 years. I’ve always had a passion for education – education fundamentally transformed my life, and so I always wanted to find a way to engage with the higher education marketplace.

“When you look at international education, the market’s very dynamic because student needs are dynamic”

The venture fund I was a part of was an investor in many education companies, one of our earliest investments was a company called Blackboard, which provides the learning management systems for many universities around the world. Through that investment we saw a number of other deals within the education space, part of which was a deal that I led called 2U, which is a company based in the US that partners with leading institutions to take their programmes online.

Through that company I started to really be exposed both to public-private partnerships as well as international education. That company and its model sort of led to Quad Learning. A lot of the core tenets of what we do is based on that. When we launched the programme, we found a lot of international students were interested in it. So it was really answering student demand in a more affordable way, to get access to a top degree that moved this company into that area.

The PIE: Would you agree that public-private partnerships are gaining prominence in the international education industry?

PB: Absolutely. When you look at international education, the market’s very dynamic and it’s dynamic because student needs are dynamic, they’re changing very rapidly. And forward-thinking institutions are really looking to commercial entities to support them in meeting their goals. We think of ourselves as being a partner of choice, and so at the forefront of our minds is working with these institutions to help them meet their goals.

“Forward-thinking institutions are really looking to commercial entities to support them in meeting their goals”

So often, given the dynamic aspect of the student marketplace, these institutions need to move more quickly than they have historically. Often you’ll find we’re engaging with these institutions to help them move a bit more quickly than they will on their own to meet these evolving student needs.

The PIE: Where do you see the company going in the next few years?

PB: I’d say one of our core values is something we call ‘student first’. We’re always very focused on the needs of the students, and as I think about our evolution as a company, we always have that in the forefront of our minds.

We’ll continue to serve community colleges, continue to invest in the experience of the student to drive our outcomes. Right now, our graduation transfer rates are well above 300% above what the traditional community college in the US produces and we’re looking to push that higher. In addition, we’ve been in conversations with many of our partners around new types of experiences.

Some may be provided at the university directly and you can see our programmes continuing to serve students first but really also looking to fill or support our partners whether they be on the community college side or the university side in achieving their goals.

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