CEO of Match Beyond
I think everybody recognizes that, today, we have a system that is too high-cost and is not serving too many students who are left behind. We need to be able to offer those students the pathway to the middle class and today we're not doing it.
by Heidi Legg
Education is something we value at an almost devout level in Boston. Yet the gap remains great. And it further chasms once these kids matriculate into college. The opportunities narrow again when less than 15% of low-income students in two-year college programs graduate and almost half of low-income students drop out of a four-year degree, says Andrew Balson, the CEO of Match Beyond. He argues this further limits job opportunities and a path to the middle-class.
The Match Foundation is a 501(C)3 nonprofit entity that has three different operating divisions. It began fifteen years ago with Match: a public charter school that goes from pre-K all the way to 12th grade with an elementary school in Hyde Park; a middle school in Jamaica Plain; and the high school on Commonwealth Avenue, right in the middle of Boston University. Now Match is taking on higher education.
Balson believes coaching alongside a new project-based, low-cost degree will help to bridge the gap. To attend Match Beyond costs $5,000 a year, with flexibility for working students or those who need to step on and off the degree path. After twenty-plus years in business with Bain Capital in Boston and San Francisco, Balson has left the for-profit world to tackle higher education. He says he is committed to making sure Match Beyond students graduate and find their way into careers that access the middle class. And he plans to scale it. He believes in innovative experimentation in higher education and that access to the middle class is the next frontier for American growth and the path to bridging the gap.
How did Match Beyond emerge?
Out of the experience of running a really innovative, high-quality school for Boston city kids, with a very high percentage of low-income, a very high percentage of people of color, a high percentage of English language learners, a high percentage of special education students, Match began to see itself as an engine of innovation in education.
What are you focused on?
The goal of everything within Match Education is to help low-income students achieve economic freedom and to get to the middle class. It's not high school graduation. It's not college matriculation. And even in what we are doing at Match Beyond, it's not only college graduation. We view everything through the lens of “How can we create a ladder for people who are in the bottom part of the income distribution here in Boston for them to get into the middle class?”
What the folks at Match began to notice was that 60 per cent of the Match High School graduates actually graduate college—which if you look at relative to almost any comparative metric out there for this group of students, it is an extraordinary record. But as my colleague, Mike Larsson, who's really one of the founders of this effort and our COO, likes to say, 'If you get a 60 at Match High School, that's actually an F.'
They knew these kids were capable of doing the work in college because they'd been challenged and they had been motivated and they had completed a rigorous high school program and then something went awry. In our eyes, we we're getting a ‘F' in our most important job, which is to lead these kids into the middle class and that has to change. Mike and Bob Hill tried to coach Match graduates at their colleges and they came to realize that the coaching they could provide in the context of traditional college was incomplete. They had very little data about how the student was actually doing during the semester. Students would take their final exam and that's when you'd get real feedback on what was happening. They lacked for day-to-day data.
Did they want to sit through the process with them in the classroom?
Exactly. They wanted to be with them while they're doing their work and really understand what the students are working on.
Is it cost where things go awry?
It's often cost, but it's other things as well. It's the flexibility of college. It's the colleges’ ability to understand the needs of low-income students and to design programs that meet those needs. It's a support infrastructure.
I, myself, now have two kids in college and when they have problems, my wife and I talk to them. We text with them. We provide them with a supportive scaffold. In the middle class, parents have often gone to college. They know what the experience is at college. For many of our students, they don't have that support infrastructure. Our median age at Match Beyond is 22, but they don't have that support infrastructure that can help them navigate both the challenges in their life and how those challenges in their life relate to college demands.
Was 2015 your first cohort of students?
It was our first formal cohort but Match started piloting the partnership with Southern New Hampshire and College for America with the first group of seven or eight students starting in October of 2013. I'm proud to say 100% of those students are going to graduate. Most of them have already and the others are on track to graduate within two and a half years with their Associate’s degree. Pretty cool.
How can you scale something that is so hands-on?
We believe we have the setting that is really geared towards helping our students graduate at very high rates. This developed out of that coaching effort by Bob and Mike, and then Match found a program from Southern New Hampshire University—a private not-for-profit college with about 2,000 students who attend classes in Manchester, New Hampshire, and about 60,000 students who are in a traditional online curriculum. They have become one of the biggest providers of online education with 90% of the students online. They took a very smart strategy: Let's get lots and lots of students on our online platform with a very low cost. They're not trying to make money. They are a non-profit. And that is an important piece of it.
Then they developed a curriculum called College For America that we use. College For America has a couple of features that we think are really important to our students. The first is that it's competency based: it's designed to build skills in students that employers say they need to be successful in the workplace, such as data analysis, working in teams, communication skills.
It's project-oriented and it's entirely online. There's no classroom requirement. There's no seat time requirement. You don't have to be anywhere at any particular point in time. There are 120 projects that a student needs to complete to acquire an Associate’s degree and then another 120 projects for those who choose to go on to a Bachelor’s degree. Because of that and because it's completely project oriented, it's highly flexible. If a student wants to work at eleven o' clock at night, then a student can work at eleven o' clock at night. If a student needs to take two months off to care for a sick family member, they can. These are all real stories, by the way, that happen all the time to our students.
How much coaching do they get with Match Beyond?
Each student gets assigned a coach and often that coach will be in touch with them daily. There are actually requirements in the first few months that students meet in person with their coach. They can come in to work in our space—they don't have to, but they can—or our coaches go out and see students all the time. They’ll meet a student at Panera Bread to talk to him or her about what's going on and what they're doing.
Let’s say our coaches work a fifty-hour week and they have fifty students, they have an hour a week for every student. Some students don't need that full hour, but then for students who need more help, they are there. There are incredible stories of what our coaches have done: Once a student said she couldn't come work on a Sunday because that was laundry day. She had a child. Single mom. So our coach went and picked up her laundry, did her laundry for her and had her come in and work that day to get her restarted.
Again, is that really scalable?
It's totally scalable. We think it's possible they can handle more. We have built a process now for how to coach. But the process isn't everything. We also need great people to coach and so what we really need to do in order to scale is we need to hire terrific people.
Do coaches need an education degree?
Coaches don't need an education degree. Our coaches are about building authentic relationships with students and then working with those students to become a trusted, almost personal trainer to those students.
We have another story where one of our coaches figured out that the student had untreated diabetes. The coach took the student and brought him to the doctor and got his diabetes treated. We have story after story after story like that. I cannot overemphasize how important it is and how much our coaches are responsible for enabling our students to find ways to succeed.
Are they paid coaches or volunteers?
Our coaches are well paid. This is a professional job.
Why else do students come to Match?
Flexibility. We have students who work every day for a couple hours a day—maybe after they finish their job. We have other students who work here at Match Beyond on Saturdays and work for seven or eight hours. They come to this space on Milk Street to do the work.
Is the education you're offering as good as the one granted from a traditional prestigious on-campus college?
I think it's a really important point. Our students are not going to Harvard. None of them have been admitted into Harvard. They're not going to UMass Amherst, our flagship state school. Our view is there are different needs for different kinds of students. For some students who can afford to go to Harvard and who have the ability to attend classes at UMass Amherst on a regular basis and don't have to work full time, who don't have children or don't have family members who depend on them when they get sick, that can be a great answer and there's nothing wrong with that experience. It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing for those for whom it works but it's been demonstrated through graduation and completion rates that that doesn't work for everybody.
How do you think American education is falling short today in higher education?
We can probably agree with the premise that a college education is important. Both the skills gained in the college education and, frankly, the credential that one gets from having a college degree is really important to accessing lots of jobs.
If you do something as simple as looking at Monster.com, there's a certain set of jobs that open to you if you have a high school diploma. If you have an Associate’s degree, there's a broader set of jobs that are open to you. If you have a Bachelor’s degree, there's an even broader and better set. Companies, whether rightly or wrongly, are inundated by résumés and people who want to apply for jobs and they use college completion as one of their screens.
If our students don't have college completion and if they come from low-income backgrounds, they often don't have a network of professionals, and these jobs are completely unattainable—and yet, they're often really talented people. So you ask, where is education failing? Of the low-income students who enroll in a four-year college program on a national basis, only 47% will graduate. Over half won't graduate. And in a two-year college program for an Associate’s degree program, only 13% of low-income students will graduate.
Students have done all this great stuff to graduate from high school and, recently, there's been a lot of work on college access. And now all of a sudden, if they get to that four-year college, less than half of them graduate and if they get to a two-year college, only one in 8 will graduate. That is completely ridiculous. That can't possibly be right.
Look at low-income students in Massachusetts. It’s similar: About a little less than a quarter of them earn a post-secondary degree. Over 75% of low-income high school graduates either never enroll in college or enroll and don't finish and often run up big student loan debts. They've spent time. They've spent effort and they get arguably nothing out of it. They're arguably worse off for having attended college. That doesn’t work.
Are the students who come to Match Beyond discouraged or excited?
Today, we have about 140 students enrolled. As you can imagine, as we get larger and larger groups, we get students from all kinds of backgrounds and in all kinds of different head-spaces.
A classic story for us is the stories of Cathy and James, who are enrolled in college and doing just fine and in schools you'd be pretty impressed with and then ultimately they had to drop out because they couldn't afford it. It's a classic story for us to have somebody drop out because they're enrolled for the coming year and in August they get a $600 book bill and they can't afford the book bill and drop out.
These are really capable people who just need a path to college that's low cost. Match Beyond is a terrific path for them and because we're not time-bound, they can complete their degrees in very short periods of time. Cathy, whom I mentioned, got her Associate’s degree in five months.
How do you get a two-year degree in five months?
In a traditional college setting, it has to take two years. In our setting, because it's a series of 120 projects, it can be faster. In a traditional college, people may take four classes and the classes may meet for three hours a week. They go to school for twelve hours and they do some homework. We could have a good debate about how much homework actually gets done, including by my children.
Here in our program, somebody who's highly motivated, may work on their studies with us thirty hours a week. They may work on it forty hours a week and, if they're capable, they can move quickly through the projects by demonstrating mastery. You actually can't move on from one project to the next without demonstrating that you mastered the concepts in that project. It's just a function of their effort and their academic capability.
How do you respond to the argument that you can't rush education? That you need the time to ruminate and knock around ideas like Dead Poets Society?
I think Dead Poets Society is a wonderful thing for those who want to sit around and talk about literature and poetry and absorb it and stew in it and learn from it. I'm not critical of that at all but it's a privilege. Our students don't have that privilege.
What our students really want is preparation for a job or to have options for employment that will get them further than their current family incomes which is frequently is in the $20,000 – $25,000 a year range which is very hard to live on in Boston. Many of our students don't have stable housing. Many of our students are or have been on public assistance. While many of them would be perfectly capable of enjoying the Dead Poets Society, the reality is they're working a full time job, they often have a child, they can't afford the Dead Poets Society.
What about the merits of an education that takes time to formulate?
If you can get the money together and you have the time, it can be a wonderful experience but not everybody has the money for it; not everybody has the time for it, and what you will find is that low-income students, even when they have the money and the time and they get in those environments, they often feel unsupported and alienated. We are putting together a package that enables them to work flexibly on their own time and at their own pace.
One of our superstars, James, he and his wife had a baby in the middle of his time with us. He would've had to miss an entire semester in a traditional college because he wanted to stay home for a couple of months with his wife and the baby. That's a wonderful thing. We should support that. We should applaud that. In the context of our college, he stayed home for a couple months and then when he was ready to go back, he came back.
Can you explain project-based versus subject-based education?
Southern New Hampshire University developed this curriculum. It's led by a remarkable man who you actually should interview named Paul LeBlanc. He himself is a first generation college student. When he became the president of Southern New Hampshire, it was a 2,000-person private college in Manchester, New Hampshire that had been around for 100 years, and he made a decision. He cares deeply about these kinds of issues. He recognized that the Internet was changing lots of things and he had professors, researchers and a collection of people develop these projects. At College For America, LeBlanc's team has built a fully accredited and big organization as part of the New England accreditation group—the same group that accredits UMass Amherst, and that accredits Brown University, and Harvard University.
Is your student base at Match Beyond coming from community college, college or both?
It's both. Over half of our students have dropped out of college and if you look at the colleges that they have dropped out of, the number one would be Bunker Hill. Others have dropped out of four-year colleges such as UMass Boston, some of the local non-selective private schools.
The things that characterize our students: over 85% of them qualify for a Pell Grant—that is the federal grant program for low-income people. They don't have to pay that back. A Pell Grant is $5,775 dollars. To attend college through Match Beyond, you pay $5,000 a year. Flat rate. It doesn't matter how long you take. It's $5,000 a year. You pay on a semester basis. If you finish in five months, you would pay $2,500 and your Pell Grant would cover in that semester. Over 85% of our students get the full Pell Grant and go to college for free.
You’ve had a very successful career in business at Bain Capital, what's the appeal of focusing your career now on non-profit education?
I want to live in a country and in a society where everybody has a fair chance to access the American Dream. I want to live in a place where the accident of the zip code into which you were born doesn't determine your life outcome, and I think we live in a world today where that's not really true. You see it so many ways in our society. You see it through all the talk and angst around inequality. You see it with the Black Lives Matter movement. You see it talking to our students who don't have the same set of opportunities that your children have and that my children have. They just don't and that's not right. That's not fair and it strikes me and many of us that the way to level the playing field as much as we possibly can—while recognizing that it's going to be hard to level it completely—is to provide really robust educational opportunities to people of low income. Education can be a pathway out of their current economic status and, I hope, the social mobility and the economic ladder that's always been part of the American ethos.
Do you remember a specific moment when you were incensed enough to want to change this?
Yes, lots and lots of moments. I started my journey in education two ways. The first is through my wife, Melora. When we first moved to Boston, she worked in the world of nonprofits. She worked for an organization that was the vehicle through which AmeriCorps grants flowed into Massachusetts and she spent time with lots of terrific organizations like City Year and Youth Build and ROCA and all these organizations that were trying to help young people. I started to get a picture through her eyes of what the world looked like for young people who didn't have middle class upbringings. Her influence on me really was pretty profound. And then in 2005, I got involved in Citizen Schools. It is a terrific organization doing great things in middle schools around Boston and around the country.
I can't say I really understood the situation clearly back then or even today, but I have learned lots about it. I started to get a window into all of this and over the last number of years, there's been so much national conversation about the challenges that our country faces. I've done a lot of reading ranging from the conservative right wing view of it to the left wing view of it and trying to attain a really balanced look.
I’ve tried to talk to people to understand their own life experiences. I oftentimes talk to people who grew up in a different way than I did and try to understand their own life experiences. I've been here now for a full year and I've started coaching one of our students as an employment coach, which is a piece of what we do here at Match Beyond. He's terrific and I can't say that I understand the issues the way our coaches understand the issues, but I'm trying.
What skills do you bring to this endeavor from your 20-plus years in business? And how is it different?
It's different in a wonderful way. It's different in a way that creates just tremendous learning for me. We have an incredible team here. The people that I work with every day are just passionate and dedicated and care so deeply, but they are also hard-nosed about getting results. We have this remarkable combination of credible results orientation with incredible passion for our students.
In terms of what I think I bring to it? There are many others who work on my team who are much better than I am at the things that have to happen here every single day. Hopefully I bring an ability to take what they're doing every day and, on some level, codify it and make sense of it in a systematic way. I ask a lot of questions. And we've developed a very codified coaching methodology and program. I helped put in a lot of the process and systems. Though in many ways, they're not my process and systems. I've asked the questions.
We were forty students when I started. We're probably close to 140 now. We have had fifteen graduates with their Associate’s degree. We're going to have our first Bachelor’s degree pretty soon. We have students who we helped to land terrific middle class jobs. We're coaching them in those jobs and helping them succeed and it's all of those individual students and an accumulation of those students that could actually change the world. This could make our city a better place at a large scale.
How do the economics work?
We have college content delivered to us very inexpensively. Our students pay $5,000 a year or $2,500 a semester to attend College For America. CFA then pays us half of that to fund the services we provide to our students. In effect, our students are getting the college content for just $2,500 per year. For CFA to scale the content delivery is quite easy. They literally add processors. The content is delivered in the same exact way with complete consistency every time to every single student. Southern New Hampshire keeps working to make The CFA content better and better. This is the power of technology and the power of the Internet to deliver content consistently at a really high quality for a very low cost.
Have any of the Match founders a chance to profit personally from this?
No. We're a total nonprofit. I get paid to work here but I donate all the money back to Match. Actually, I donate back more than I get paid but we want to have our expense structure reflect what the expense structure would look like with somebody in my role who is hired. Match is a total not-for-profit. Teachers in all the Match schools make less than they make in Boston Public Schools. People are here because they want to make the world a better place. They want to help students.
A decade from now, what do you see as the landscape for post-high school education?
I'll tell you what I hope to see. I think we need to dramatically lower the cost of delivering post-secondary education for lots of students. We see it every day in the challenges that our students face paying for traditional colleges. If we are really going to provide access and graduation opportunity for low-income students, we have to lower the cost of higher education. The public universities are already subsidized by the state. That's under increasing pressure as the state is under fiscal pressure.
How much is UMass?
It's around $16,000 or $17,000 a year.
Harvard is around $60K.
But part of the reason the price at UMass is around $17K is that the state of Massachusetts, today, spends around $1.3 billion subsidizing the state college system, which also includes the community colleges.
Why is it so high? In Canada and other countries, the cost is much lower.
Today, higher education in the US is basically an oligopoly. There are a little over 4,000 higher education institutions in the country but very few new ones open because, in order to enable financial aid to work, those institutions have to be accredited and that accreditation process is very hard for new colleges to acquire.
There is very little competition today in college and I come from a world where competition is good. It forces everybody to get better. I'd like to see that open up. I'd like to see the federal government enable financial aid to be used in new and different situations with some innovation and where we're able to try new things. The results colleges are getting today are empirical. It's not working.
So you want more competition and to disrupt things?
I hope one of two things will happen with existing colleges. They will either adapt and get better—because competition makes people better with lower costs—or they won't. In which case, students won't go there. They'll go to the ones that are doing a better job. That is what's supposed to happen.
Today higher education is a little bit like Henry Ford when he invented the Model T and the assembly line. There was one product. There was the Model T in black and that's all everybody could buy and it was pretty expensive. Over the course of time in cars there's been competition and now we have all kinds of different cars: different colors, different shapes, different sizes and people can choose the one that works best for them. If we had had an oligopoly in restaurants, we'd all still be eating at Howard Johnson’s, which was around fifty years ago. Today, the same college institutions are around that were around 100 years ago and 200 years ago.
The counterargument is that some people will get a great education, the Tesla, while others will only afford a lesser model.
It's already happening today. If we have a 13% graduation rate from community college, it's really hard to argue that community college is a Rolls Royce or a Tesla. If you have a 47% graduation rate from the four-year colleges, it's pretty hard to argue that that's a Rolls Royce or a Tesla either. I think everybody recognizes that today we have a system that is too high-cost and is not serving at least some students who are left behind. We need to be able to offer those students the pathway to the middle class and today we're not doing it.
What happens to the professor in this new system?
I think many of the traditional colleges will still continue to flourish because there are many students for whom it is a wonderful thing. There is nothing wrong with that option. Being a professor is a wonderful profession. Teaching literature, teaching sociology, lab time—all those things are really important and matter a lot and shouldn’t disappear. But as we try to expand college access with only 14% of low income students today graduating college, I think we can all agree that we would like that number to be higher. The traditional system is not enabling that number to be higher.
What public opinion do you want to change?
It's all around this issue. I'd like to see people to recognize what the problem truly is in higher education and for them to say, “Let's find a way to let entrepreneurs see if they can solve that problem.” I think Match Beyond is an answer. Year Up [see our interview with Gerald Chertavian] feels that they can be an answer.
In order for the experimentation to really blossom, the same access to financial aid that students have to use to go to traditional private colleges would enable a lot of experimentation because all of a sudden students who can't pay out of pocket would be able to choose other alternatives.
I would like to see public opinion change to allow the same kind of experimentation that we've seen in industry after industry ultimately to the benefit of consumers. It's hard to argue that Amazon.com hasn't been a benefit to consumers everywhere. We get lower cost. We get delivery. They always have inventory. It's like a wonderful service. We aren't allowing that same kind of thing to happen in education.
And we haven't even talked about what employers say: When you look at all the research, employers basically say the product of America's colleges is not what we want. It's not what we need.
If higher education were working perfectly, if there were 100% graduation rates, it would be different. If they didn't have outstanding debts—student loans just passed $1.3 trillion dollars—and employers were saying, “Yeah, we're getting great employees who are innovative and can communicate and can work in teams and who know how to do the analytical work that we need,” then I would probably say, “All right, there's real risk to the experimentation.” But it's not working today. We all know that and public opinion has to shift. What we should do is allow passionate entrepreneurs to create new things that will work.
Is Boston the right place for this sort of emergence?
Boston has this incredible combination: incredible entrepreneurial energy—especially right now—and really talented people who care a lot. They want the world to be a better place. I think there's a cultural dimension to it. Maybe it goes back to the founding of the colonies where there's a sense of community in Boston, a sense of wanting to build a shining city on a hill. So much of the founding of our country happened here and, I think, the principles still exist.
If 200 students come to Match Beyond after this interview, can you take them?
Yes. We have forty new students who are starting with us next week. They start every month with us. It's completely rolling. We probably won't start a group on August 1st, but almost every month we have people starting.
What are you reading right now?
To this whole point about trying to learn, I finished Ta-Nehisi Coates' book Between the World and Me which is all about the experience of being a black boy and a black man in America. I grew up as a middle class white man.
I am trying to do what I can to understand the experiences of our students and how they think about things and about how they have been formed by both by their upbringings that are often in difficult economic circumstances. I’m also reading Dennis Ross’ book, Doomed to Succeed, about the relationship between Israel and the United States. I tend to read a lot of nonfiction.
Where do you unwind in Boston?
My favorite place to unwind is summertime at Lake Sunapee or Lake Sebago with a rum and tonic. In Boston, I think my favorite place to unwind is a glass of wine with my wife on the couch.