IDEA-U opened its doors Oct. 7, 2017, through a partnership with College for America — a division of Southern New Hampshire University — which offers online courses throughout the country and abroad.
Using a hybrid method of online courses and in-person guidance, the charter institution expanded its offerings from its former K-12 model to now include college offerings.
“It was originally a re-enrollment and recommitment strategy,” said María Esther Rodríguez Nguma, Ph.D. co-founder and managing director, in a previous interview. “But we found that a lot of IDEA Public Schools alumni that had not been successful (in college). It wasn’t really due to not being academically secure, but life had gotten in the way. So many of our students had to contribute to their family’s income, so they were working either full-time or multiple part-time jobs.”
They adopted the full College for America model in which the online courses are taken in a learn-as-you-go model. Students complete the coursework at their own pace while reaching certain benchmarks.
The degree plans are offered on a flat-rate tuition of $5,500 per year, and students can take as many credits as they can handle.
But perhaps one of the biggest differences from traditional in-person or online courses is that students must also meet with mentors once per week during the four-month session. These meetings take place in-person, with IDEA-U centers located in Weslaco and Brownsville.
“We know that online degrees can be pretty lonely,” said Patti Montemayor, director of IDEA-U Weslaco. “So if you get stuck in a project or don’t know how to use certain resources, we are able to provide you with that in-person support.”
Having this guidance can make a world of a difference for students who didn’t find their footing in a traditional college setting, or for those going back to college after many years. Most of their students are also juggling work, family, and other responsibilities, Montemayor said, so the meetings also work to hold them accountable to their own goals.
“The priorities for (different students) are completely different, so it’s a lot of individualized coaching that the advisors have had to learn,” Montemayor said. “Because whatever is going to work for student A is not going to work for student B.”
While the meetings with advisors is one program requirement, another is to complete 12 hours at the center. IDEA-U Centers are open Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m for students to complete their hours. These spaces are equipped with anything the students might need to achieve their goals, from technology to peer support.
“We also have student-support specialists, which are our interns who are working on their degree at a really accelerated pace, so they are able to lean on them as well,” she said. “So there is always somebody here who can help them.”
The degree pathways currently being offered include associate degrees in arts, in general studies with a concentration in business, and an associate degree in healthcare management.
There are a total of seven bachelor degree options for students. Three of these are bachelor degrees of arts in management with concentrations in public administration, insurance services, logistics, and operations. Two bachelor degrees of arts are in communication with concentrations in business and healthcare management. Finally, there are two bachelor degrees of arts in healthcare management with concentrations in communication and global perspectives.
Those interested in applying can go to idea-u.org and fill out an appliation online. IDEA-U program requirements include having a high school diploma or GED, committing 12 hours per week at the center, and a weekly mentor meeting.
The school also conducts a four-week academic onboarding, or course refresher, in which students can see whether the program works with their schedule and lifestyle — all before any tuition is charged.
“We want to make sure that all students are successful and that all students have a chance to go to college,” Montemayor said. “It’s very low cost, so it’s very manageable … and there’s always somebody here to provide you a supportive environment.”