The $10,000 Bachelor’s Degree That Works

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A few years ago, National Louis University in Chicago, which has historically served adult working students, has launched the new Harrison Professional Pathways Program, which provides access to bachelor’s degrees for traditional-aged high school graduates from all socioeconomic and academic backgrounds, but aims in particular to increase college access and success for first-generation, often low-income students. Priced at only $10,000 per year, the program is remarkable both in its outcomes and in the intentionality of its design. The curriculum, student support, and the financial model were all designed deliberately to meet the needs of this student demographic.

The program was launched in response to a low (14%) four-year college completion rate for Chicago Public high school freshmen. This caught our attention; here in Denver, CO, where Academic Impressions is based, the four-year college graduation rate for Denver Public Schools graduates is just 9%. These low percentages are red flags, and when colleges can innovate to answer this societal need, that is a clear win. It takes courage on the part of the institution’s leadership to create the space needed for that innovation and to dedicate institutional resources toward it, and it takes intentionality to do so in a way that is sustainable. Yet National Louis University has done so very successfully with very few resources, and much of what they have done is replicable for other institutions.

To learn more about this, we spoke recently with Aarti Dhupelia, the institution’s vice president of strategic initiatives.

The Challenge They Faced

In December 2014, the University of Chicago released a report on bachelor’s degree completion rates for graduates of Chicago’s public school system. The report found an improvement over historical rates, yet still only 14% of high school freshmen would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree within ten years.

“Clearly, what we were already doing was not working, not if the majority of our young people couldn’t get through college,” Dhupelia recalls. “Nivine Megahed, our president, tasked NLU with the question of how to get thousands more students through college. We needed to address the challenge that first-generation, under-represented students tend not to persist and complete. We needed a cost-effective model that we could scale rapidly and that other colleges could replicate.”

Nationally, colleges with broad access admissions criteria have low graduation rates; once they enroll academically under-prepared students, they don’t always support those students effectively. National Louis set the bar for admissions at 2.0 GPA, hoping to serve those thousands of 2.0-3.0 GPA public-school graduates each year who show potential to succeed in college but who have historically been under-served by higher education institutions. “We want to show: Here’s how you can close the college achievement gap,” Dhupelia says.

What They Did

In order to separate the program from the institution’s existing governance and allow for swift innovation and a swift launch, Nivine Megahed established a separate “innovation space” within the university, a distinct division reporting directly to her and the provost. “National Louis had to create that separate space where you could reimagine and rethink,” Dhupelia explains, “where new ideas could rapidly develop and flourish.”

The new bachelor’s degree program was designed and launched quickly, over nine months, enrolling its first freshman class of nearly 80 students in September 2015.

National Louis has built that model from the ground up, designing it from the start to address directly  the most common reasons that thousands of qualified students every year do not enroll in or persist through college. The program’s academic curriculum and wraparound support model are intentionally designed to provide personalized support to get students through college, and the business model is built to do so in a cost-effective and sustainable manner.

The business model

As 87% of Chicago Public Schools graduates are low-income students, National Louis saw the need for an affordable college business model. At $10,000 “all in,” the program is believed to be the most affordable bachelor’s degree in Illinois. It is priced strategically: if a student enrolls with the lowest expected family contribution and is Pell-eligible, the program can effectively be tuition-free. There are no additional textbook costs for students; all texts are provided through online courseware and open resources that are baked into the $10,000/year program cost and built into National Louis’ operating model at a rate of $40-$50 per student per course, much lower than the national average of $300 per student per course.  “We took away the cost constraint,” Dhupelia emphasizes.

Dhupelia estimates 3-4 years of start-up investment costs are necessary for upfront program development, after which the program will be self-sustaining at the $10,000 tuition level, able to fund its recurring operational costs fully while also seeing a (projected) 30% margin in net tuition revenue per student. Examples of efficiencies in the operating model that enable the low price point include:

  • The program streamlined the range of general education and elective offerings, reducing the number of courses offered in the program. Besides being more efficient, clearer pathways to a degree also speeds up time to completion and limits student loan debt.
  • Because the majority of courses National Louis offered in the past were night classes offered to adults, adding this daytime program for traditional-aged high school graduates allowed the institution to grow while using existing excess capacity in its current facilities, filling under-utilized space, rather than investing in new space from the start.
  • Professors in the program carry a full teaching load, allowing the program to operate with a lean staff, and enabling instructors to focus their efforts on being best-in-class instructors.

National Louis did hire personnel for the program from scratch, adding nearly all-new professors and success coaches, but the biggest startup cost has been course development and establishing the data infrastructure required to support flipped, blended courses and adaptive learning. “But,” Dhupelia emphasizes, “we’ll see economies of scale as data analysts, professors, and coaches are spread over more students over time.” The up-front funding for the program thus far has been provided for by a mix of private fundraising and institutional belt-tightening, reallocating resources from other divisions.

Curriculum and delivery

The first-generation student demographic often faces both a lack of academic readiness and under-developed non-cognitive skills such as self-confidence, resilience, work ethic, and a willingness to ask for help. National Louis designed the program’s instructional model intentionally to address these challenges. For example, the program consists of small, 30-student classes (no large lecture halls) where students receive personalized attention. In addition, the class time is used predominantly for applied learning. The courses are offered on a flipped classroom model, so there are no 3-hour lectures; instead, in-class time is focused on project-based and highly interactive learning.

The online courseware used is adaptive courseware, which meets students where they are academically and gives the faculty in-depth views of what students are learning: which specific modules of course content they are struggling with and which they are moving through quickly. This allows for more personalized instruction.

The courses are also blended. “Many of our students would not be able to attend and persist in a traditional degree program,” Dhupelia notes. “They may have to work. They may have to take care of their baby or care for ailing parents. So we designed a flexible, convenient, blended program that enables them to balance their school and personal responsibilities. The students are here in class face-to-face all day Monday and all day Wednesday every week, but the rest of the coursework is online. Many students tell us this flexible, blended model is a key reason they are able to attend college.”

Student support

Recognizing that first-generation students often receive less guidance at home on how to navigate the college experience, National Louis’s new program provides student success coaches, with a caseload of 100 students to one coach. “The coach is both student advisor and guidance counselor,” Dhupelia explains. “The coach is the big sister or brother, the mentor, the ally, the one who will give tough love while also being a constant cheering section and the one-stop shop for getting students the help they need throughout college. The coach and the student meet can meet anywhere from quarterly to weekly depending on a student’s level of need. At the end of the day, the coach’s goal is to provide academic, personal, and career support to keep every student on-track to graduate college and enter a successful career.”

National Louis is developing a predictive scoring system to determine if a student is on track toward graduation in 4 years. Currently, they have found that a 2.3 GPA is a good proxy for “on-track,” and to guide interventions, students are scored ‘green’ if above 2.3 GPA, ‘yellow’ if at 1.5-2.3 GPA, and ‘red’ if below 1.5. Professors and coaches meet weekly as a team to discuss every single student and whether each student is in the red, yellow, or green in that particular week based on class attendance and assignment completion and performance. These weekly meetings enable early and ongoing intervention planning, both academic and non-academic.

Additionally, the faculty set aside significant office hours to provide more opportunities for individualized instruction.

“What proved most predictive of student success in the first year of this program,” Dhupelia emphasizes, “was not a student’s high-school GPA or test scores, but rather a student’s college class attendance and how much online work the student did. This helped us drive home the message with students that they each have the ability to be successful: it’s not about your ACT score of the neighborhood you are from, it’s simply about showing up and putting in the work.”

Early Results

The degree program is growing rapidly. The first class enrolled approximately 80 students and the second class expects to enroll around 300 new students this Fall, with local high school leaders and nonprofit college access partners noting the Pathways program’s ability to serve students who previously might not have enrolled in or completed college. Dhupelia hopes to reach 1,600 students by 2020; the program’s infrastructure is scalable to accommodate that growth in students while also improving its operating margin.

There are some early but significant signs that the program is effective, beyond enrollment:

  • The fall-to-winter retention rate was 96% (only 3 students didn’t persist quarter-to-quarter). Dhupelia says this is the result of proactive interventions and the data-driven approach to identifying the specific, hands-on support needed from faculty and coaches.
  • Dhupelia estimates a fall-to-fall net cumulative retention rate of 65-70%. Elsewhere, the average first-to-second-year retention rate for CPS graduates with a 2.5 GPA is approximately 55%.
  • In the third week of the first term, 80% of the students were scored ‘red’ (on pace for a GPA below 1.5). By the end of the first term, only 26% were red, with over 50% in the green (above 2.3 GPA). 60% ended their first year in the green.
  • In the fall of that first year, none of the 80 students in the program earned straight A’s. In the winter term, there were 11 students who earned straight A’s. In the spring, 14 students earned straight A’s.

Key Takeaways for Other Institutions

What’s significant is that this program was designed from the ground up to address barriers to college completion that impact thousands of first-generation students every year. The program’s model of personalized attention, proactive and data-driven intervention, and structured professional pathways supported by a flexible blended course delivery are all key to students’ success. The program was also designed in a highly streamlined way, taking into account both the financial constraints of many students and the need for the program to become self-sustaining so that it could be scaled up to serve more students over time.


  • The use of an organizational “innovation space” insulated from governance constraints and turf battles
  • The use of online courseware and open source materials as alternatives to textbooks
  • The leveraging of excess capacity in facilities
  • The decision to partially fund the upfront cost of this high-priority program by reallocating resources from other divisions within the university

These were intentional decisions that allowed the institution to quickly and affordably launch a program that will over time run sustainably at a total cost of just $10,000 per year per student. “I have to believe that if we can figure out a way to do this for $10,000 per student, other colleges can as well, and the long-term impact on student success will be tremendous,” Dhupelia concludes.



Hear from Aarti Dhupelia at National Louis University in our digital recording The $10,000-a-Year Bachelor’s Degree that WorksGet an insider perspective of the “nuts and bolts” of running this comprehensive program, and leave with considerations for how the various aspects of this program can be applied and scaled at your own institution.