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A New College Model? Design it with Students.

Local high school students in Tucson, Arizona, participate in the early stages of program design for the new Catholic University model.


When I got a phone call from the Provost of Catholic University three years ago, I did not know why he wanted to meet. But that meeting led to a design sprint, which led to a groundbreaking pilot that launches this fall, COVID notwithstanding. Catholic University wanted to return to an original mission in its 130-year history, to serve those who could not afford its private college sticker price and not only those who could travel to Washington, DC, to live on its storied campus. They were the first university to ask the Lab to help them create a much more affordable version of themselves, and one designed with first-generation Latinx students in parts of the US that have no Catholic colleges. As Provost Andrew Abela, who is now Dean of the Business School, describes it, “We wanted a program that was low-cost and high techbut also high touch.

Our task was to co-craft a four-year degree that might cost a student less than $10,000 a year and where they could either live at home or near home. From a pool of 15 cities, our target for the pilot quickly became Tucson, Arizona, a region with significant poverty but on the cusp of significant economic growth, and therefore it wielded a hungry business community. The Mayor and the Bishop were on board and saw this as an opportunity to mitigate the brain drain of Catholic talent as the best and the brightest went away to school, or worse, were coming back not completing their degrees.

Our design process began and ended with students (and, in this community, included parents, who are key decision-makers). Human-centered design requires you to build design criteria before you draft concepts. What value proposition would convince families to test an untested model? To get to parents, we started with the parish priests, to get to students, we approached the high schools. We held several design sessions and conducted surveys with potential students to land on key components of the offering. Some surprises: Parents put cost and career preparation ahead of faith formation and students rated tutoring, career coaching and internships as well as in-person cohorts the highest. Says Abela, ”After much research, we settled on a ‘hybrid learning model.’ This combines small, local cohorts, in-person co-instructors and support staff, cutting-edge online content and testing, a partnership with Pima Community College, and hands-on experience with local employers.”

We landed on an unusual private-public partnership with the local community college for two main reasons: one, to bring down the cost of instruction, and two, the overwhelming desire of these learners to come together in cohorts, which they could do for their early coursework at a dedicated community college location (alas, perhaps after COVID). But the employer engagement piece is perhaps the most unique feature and a model for any college looking to support the 70% of students who need to work at least half time.  After joining design sessions to map out their involvement, several local employers have signed up to offer gig work, course projects, and guided apprenticeships to help students have career-related paid experiences for this business degree. The University also plans to use the Lab’s 21st century skill badges to capture and assess workplace learning.

So now, fast forward two years, we are seeing students sign up for this fall’s first 20-student cohort pilot, “trailblazers” like Guillermo, Layla, Scott, Stephanie, Braulio, Jesus, and Dominic. We both breathe a sigh of relief and are holding our breath in hopes that COVID-19 doesn’t in any way impede September’s launch. These students helped to design the change they want to see in how college should work for them. While human-centered design is about invention AND iteration, we want everything to go perfectly from the start.