Grant Aldrich, founder and CEO of OnlineDegree.com, is working to remove the major barriers adults are often faced with when deciding whether or not to go back to school. And as somebody who personally experienced the overwhelming impact of student debt, the company’s mission – to make higher education more accessible and affordable for everyone – is something he is genuinely passionate about.
In this episode of the Leading Learning Podcast, Jeff talks with Grant about the business model behind OnlineDegree.com, including how it works, why it’s successful, and ways it benefits learners and universities. They also discuss the value of traditional degrees in today’s world – particularly as compares to options like certificates and certification – as well as dynamics and trends in the adult education market.
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[00:18] – Before we dive into the interview, we want to make sure that listeners know we offer a range of resources beyond the podcasts. One of those is our regular Webinar series.
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[00:52] – A preview of what will be covered in this episode where Jeff interviews Grant Aldrich, founder and CEO of OnlineDegree.com.
[02:07] – You might consider the reflections questions below on your own after listening to an episode, and/or you might pull the team together, using part or all of the podcast episode for a group discussion.
- In the interview, we discuss how taking the first step to participate in education is often the hardest part, particularly for working adults. That applies not just to degree programs, but to all forms of lifelong learning. So, as you listen, ask yourself, “How do we help our learners, particularly those who have not participated in our offerings before, take the first step?”
- The business model for OnlineDegree.com is based on removing barriers, tapping learners’ own motivations, and shifting where monetization occurs. So, think about your own model and consider whether there are aspects of the OnlineDegree.com business model that might point to new opportunities for you.
The Story Behind OnlineDegree.com
[03:24] – I was very interested to hear your story and what brought you to launch a business like OnlineDegree.com. I’d love for you to take just a moment and share some of your story with listeners.
Grant talks about how he was an Internet entrepreneur for his entire career (about 15 years), and he was fortunate enough to have success. This success allowed him a period of introspection to ask himself what he really wanted to do/achieve. He had a couple of different missions, one being to spend time with his family. The other was to solve a very big problem.
He had been surrounded by the topic of education his whole life and also realized that the debt he’d accumulated after college had left an indelible mark on him. This created the perfect opportunity for him to create OnlineDegree.com.
[05:28] – I know you were involved with some other startups before this. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you landed on OnlineDegree.com as the thing that you needed to do? And also, tell us a little bit more about how it all works—what the business model is, what you’re actually providing in terms of value, and how you might ultimately be generating revenue off of it?
Grant shares that listeners would likely be interested for two reasons:
- Their mission statement: to make college more affordable and accessible for everyone.
- They completely dispensed with the tuition model in trying to pioneer a new model to pay and monetize the entire operation and solve a lot of the inherit problems with the tuition model.
He notes that for working adults, there’s estimated to be 35-40 million working adults in the U.S. who are looking to go back to school or upskill and they aren’t taking that first step. Grant saw this was a problem and in terms of macro trends, it’s only going to become more problematic and demand is going to become higher as globalization and automation become more prevalent. There’s also going to be a real crunch for jobs.
Grant explains that at OnlineDegree.com, someone can come on and get started in 60 seconds, taking as many college level courses as they’d like. And they’ve organized articulation agreements with universities across the country where they can receive credit for those courses towards their degree.
They’ve also gone above and beyond that and organized tuition discounts for the students to take advantage of, along with coaching and support throughout the whole process. And they do it all for free.
Taking the First Steps to Lifelong Learning
[08:29] – You’re basically providing the open door into being able to pursue lifelong learning. But many people don’t have/can’t figure out a clear way to take that first step.
Grant says that’s exactly it and explains how as we get older there are a number of things that become more problematic:
- More responsibility (children, jobs, etc.), which means time is very important.
- Psychological anxiety – people are scared of new things or going back into a classroom, which creates a lot of inhibition.
- Financial aspects – it’s a big leap to actually find a school and then begin paying for it.
These are all impediments that OnlineDegree.com was designed to solve. So somebody can wade into the pool instead of jumping in. And they’ve seen great success because for years people have been saying they want to go back to school but they never take that first step. And they’re providing that catalyst for people to do this.
Sponsor: Community Brands
[10:04] – If you are looking for technology that will make it easier for your learners to take that critical first step, check out our sponsor for this quarter.
Community Brands provides a suite of cloud-based software for organizations to engage and grow relationships with the individuals they serve, including association management software, learning management software, job board software, and event management software. Community Brands’ award-winning Crowd Wisdom learning platform is among the world’s best LMSes for corporate extended enterprise and is a leading LMS for association-driven professional education programs. Award-winning Freestone, Community Brands’ live event learning platform, is a leading platform for live learning event capture, Webinars, Webcasts, and on-demand streaming.
The Value of Degrees in Today’s World
[11:01] –What’s your perspective on whether a degree is necessarily where people need to end up with this? Or is it just the process and getting some of the education that might lead to a degree? I ask that because economists will still tell you that having a college/advanced degree gives people an edge in life. But there is this rising conversation about the return on investment for a college degree and whether it’s declining or whether degrees are what everybody needs. What’s your perspective on that?
Grant notes this brings up a good point, which is the cost benefit and that is the key thing that has become out of balance and caused this huge shift in the marketplace and in people’s perception of getting a degree.
He agrees that in many cases it’s not always necessary to have a degree and that we’ve all seen how people can be very successful in a wide range of fields. At the same time though, the economists are correct as well because in the broad marketplace, it is still a benefit since it’s going to get more competitive for jobs, and that isn’t going away.
The reason we’ve seen this shift in people being open to alternatives (and that more alternatives are emerging) is because the cost benefit analysis is no longer there.
The cost and requirements on your time to get a degree are so great that most people aren’t willing to do it.
But Grant says if you were to ask the average person (in a perfect world, with no consideration for time or cost), whether they wanted a degree or some kind of alternative, they’d likely all say a degree. And that’s what they’re trying to bring back into balance and make a reality for people.
Certificate and Certification Programs
[13:28] –We are in a day and age where good, strong certificate programs, certifications, and other forms of validation can also work very well for people. I don’t think this is part of your business model right now—can you see it evolving to focus in on certification programs or strong certificate programs, for example, that people could also be using the educational resources you provide?
Grant says absolutely and that they already have. As part of the articulation, normally that applies to all the different certification programs that each school offers. Another big problem they saw over the last 10-15 years is the over prescription of getting a degree and for many people it’s not necessary.
This dovetails into another problem they are trying to solve, which is that there’s no good, third party, unbiased resource for working adults to provide any kind of guidance or support. We have this at the high school level but for adults, it’s non-existent.
Open Educational Resources
[16:06] –If I understand correctly, the foundation of your model relies on there being basically free/open educational resources (OER) from various universities. What’s your perspective on where we stand with open education and, am I correct—is that critical to your model?
Grant discusses how it’s not only critical to their model but that it’s critical for everyone to help bring down the cost of education and to provide greater, more beneficial education.
He says that if you have a model where you’re going to make everything free, you have to do some pretty interesting things in terms of structuring it so that you can lower the costs of the course creation and certain things that normally require very heavy investment.
So they’ve utilized OER and have been able to utilize that to bring the costs way down. But Grant points out that a lot of the problems we’ve been seeing with open source material coming out of places like MIT and Harvard, for example, is that although they’ve made it open, the licensing on it isn’t open, which makes it limited.
Grant says the OER movement is growing and amazing but a lot of the big schools have not really taken the big steps in terms of licensing to make it truly open and that’s a big problem. At OnlineDegree.com the professors have created a lot of the content themselves but also interweaved a lot of the available open source content to make a great learning experience.
So open source is key and something they support. Grant adds that about 70% of the content flowing through OnlineDegree.com is their original content and the remaining 30% is OER.
Challenges with Licensing
[19:47] – Regarding the licensing problem that you highlighted with these big universities it seems that most of them are under the flag of a Coursera or edX—so they’ve sort of been corporatized it seems. Is that part of the root of that problem or is it just other policies that those institutions have?
Grant says that’s correct and ultimately it’s because of their commercial interests. For something to be truly open source, you provide the content and you have to make it completely open because you don’t want to limit how people utilize it. Of course there are certain rules you have to follow but it’s a whole culture and system that’s worked very well in software.
And when you bring that to education, Grants points out there are limitations. For example, with MIT, they provide all these amazing courses but they stipulate limitations on being able to use it commercially. So unless you are a non-profit entity and you’re not going to be making money on it, you can’t utilize those courses.
You may think that sounds ok but at the same time, he says it then precludes a lot of groups with really creative ways to come into the marketplace to make it more accessible and lower the price of education (like OnlineDegree.com is doing). And of course, that’s by design because they don’t want those people utilizing it.
[21:48] –What’s your perspective on the dynamics in the education market? What’s valid/acceptable and what’s not in terms of commercializing access to education?
Grant discusses how although there’s a been a revival for edtech investing, a lot of investors still want to stay away from it because of the challenges they are seeing. Ultimately, he thinks everyone would agree that everything about – even the non-profit education world – is about money. And to ignore that is a little naïve.
He adds that there’s nothing wrong with bringing capitalism and commercialism to an industry. He doesn’t see any issues with this but thinks what’s happened is because of some of the bad actors in the space in for-profit education. But he’d argue that what enabled that bad behavior is the government’s role within the student loan. If that didn’t exist, then those companies couldn’t have done what they’ve done.
Grant admits he’s actually a big open market kind of person and feels that if a company is doing something well and making people happy, they succeed. And if they’re not and doing something people don’t want, eventually – and usually very quickly – the market responds.
Trends in the Market for Lifelong Learning
[25:22] – When you look out at what’s happening in the learning and education landscape, particularly for adults, whether it’s in higher education or the lifelong learning market, what are some of the trends that have you excited? And potentially represent opportunities now or in the future?
Grant offers further insight into how OnlineDegree.com monetizes. He says they dispensed with the tuition model, which in his mind was a necessity.
If you’re truly going to enact massive change and create a totally new platform and system to help people approach higher education, you have to cater to the financial impediments in their mind- in addition to the psychological and physical – and make it free.
What’s great about that is that when students come on and begin taking courses and start proving to themselves that they’ve got the time management to be successful in school and in an online format, and can use a modern LMS, they prove to themselves that they are ready for higher education. But at the same time, they are also more likely to be successful when they enroll at higher education.
So the way they make money is by working with universities on a sponsorship basis and advertising because for them, it’s a huge benefit as well. They have a great audience where all these students are self-vetting and proving to themselves they have what it takes. And they’ve created this neat platform where the universities can also get the types of students they desire.
What’s most exciting to Grant is that their model only exists in the university and higher education’s adoption of non-collegiate learning. The value that organizations like them provide is vetting these types of students, while letting the students try it out on a free platform, without the consequences of things like loans or shame if it doesn’t work.
A Student-Driven Approach
[28:48] – So you’re really a form of lead generation for the universities, prequalifying the students and then showing them the path to take that further. And the universities are finding that very valuable?
Grant emphasizes that everything is completely student-driven. When a student comes on the platform, they begin learning and OnlineDegree.com provides all the different pathways they can go. They have a lot of advisors as well and the whole goal is that they created a completely student-centric system. And that directly contradicts the Online Program Management (OPM) model, which is university-centric. Ultimately with this model, Grant explains how everybody wins.
He also clarifies what OPM is saying these groups are almost like a large, specialized vertical agency that comes in with the different universities. It used to be these groups were instrumental in building out a school’s online programs, including things like recruitment and retention. And they would take a very large percentage of the tuition to do so. But now, as the market has emerged and most schools have people and the ability to build online programs, really what they do is more recruitment and retention.
Grant discusses how this current OPM model is broken and notes that in addition to being used by for-profits, non-profits and private institutions use it as well. He thinks this is also why we have a lot of the aggressive marketing tactics. And because of OPM, there really hasn’t been a third party to allow the student to come first and let them choose any of the options.
[33:35] –What is one of the most powerful learning experiences you’ve been involved in, as an adult, since finishing your formal education?
Grant admits that it is bar none, becoming a father. He also shares how impactful the quote, “Know thyself” on the Temple of Apollo has been on him.
[36:01] –How to connect with Grant and/or learn more:
- LinkedIn: Grant Aldrich
- Website: https://www.onlinedegree.com
[37:10] – Wrap-Up
- How do we help our learners, particularly those who have not participated in our offerings before, take the first step?
- Which aspects of the OnlineDegree.com business model might point to new opportunities for our learning business?
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[39:13] – Sign off
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