It may sound too good to be true, but a Mountain View-based education company is giving anyone who lives or works in Mountain View the chance to earn a college degree without having to pay a dime.
The Mountain View Working Scholars program, launched by the company Study.com, kicked off two months ago and is offering an educational opportunity for those working in Mountain View who haven't completed a college degree. By leveraging online courses that can earn people accredited college units, the program is allowing workers in the city to stay on the job and complete college courses on their own time, with the ultimate goal of earning a bachelor's degree.
But what's the catch? That's what many of the employees in the downtown area wonder when the company lays out the premise of the program, said Bo Cheli, the company's manager of community relations. Rather than sell the idea of Mountain View Working Scholars through press releases and other traditional channels, Cheli has taken to the streets and talked to workers at downtown Mountain View businesses and beyond, asking retail and service sector employees what they think about going back to school and earning that college degree.
"Often it is received in disbelief or in tears, and sometimes a combination of the two," Cheli said at a Mountain View City Council meeting last week.
Study.com is an online education website that allows users to pay fees in order to take thousands of classes on a digital platform, from middle school to post-graduate. Unlike other online academies, however, about 85 of those courses can be completed for college credits. Anyone enrolled in the Working Scholars program will get access to these courses, and will be able to complete up to 90 units of college courses towards a bachelor's degree in business administration.
From there, the enrolled students begin taking online classes at Thomas Edison State University -- which is headquarted in Trenton, New Jersey -- to complete the final classes before finally a college degree. Study.com has partnered with the Mountain View Chamber of Commerce Education Foundation to launch a scholarship fund to pay for the courses at Thomas Edison, which is expected to cost between $3,300 and $4,300 per student, in order to offer employees living and working in Mountain View with an entirely tuition-free degree.
Adrian Ridner, the CEO and co-founder of Study.com, said he and the company have been looking for ways to give back to the community, and that offering people in Mountain View the option to earn their bachelor's degree is a good opportunity. Of the people over age 25 living and working in the city, Ridner said an estimated 45 percent do not have a degree, and many of them have to keep working to keep up with the rising cost of living and can't afford to go back to school.
The high tech companies that put Mountain View on the map and brought economic prosperity to the region unfortunately have left a lot of people behind, Ridner said. For every tech employee in the region, there's an estimated five service employees, he said, making it all the more important to find ways to give them a chance to get a leg up.
"It's just not sustainable, and we have to do our part to sustain the local economy," Ridner said.
Since launching the program, Cheli and others have reached out to people working in retail, the food service industry, single working mothers and local military employees. Employees from Burger King, Pacific Eye Care and all four of Wells Fargo's Mountain View branches are among the people working in the city who have joined the program.
"The conversations I have had with workers in Mountain View these last couple months in Mountain View have been nothing short of heart-warming and heart-breaking," Cheli said at the council meeting. "I have heard countless stories of people who live in one of the most prosperous places in the world, but can't afford the time or expense to get the degree that would allow them to participate in the city's success."
All told, about 30 people are actively working on college courses, and another 250 applicants have joined the Working Scholars program, many of whom heard about the program directly through Cheli in a one-on-one conversation in downtown Mountain View. Max Dehart, 27, works behind the register at Therapy, and jumped at the opportunity to go back to school through the Working Scholars Program.
Like many of the program enrollees, Dehart said he went to college immediately after high school, but eventually dropped out in order to work full-time. While he intended to go back to school, he said he got stuck in a cycle of paying for an expensive apartment, and simply doesn't have enough money to go back to school.
At first, Dehart was skeptical of the Working Scholars program. Not only was it promising so much, but the idea of taking three-fourths of the classes online for a degree -- with no homework -- seemed bizarre. After learning that the program is linked with an accredited college, he decided to give it a shot.
"This is an opportunity I'm not sure is ever going to come again, so I jumped on it," he said.
It may seem a little odd to pick a partner college, Thomas Edison State University, that's on the opposite side of the country, but Ridner said it was a conscious choice to pick a school that shared the mission of Mountain View Working Scholars. The school has a reputation, he said, for helping working adults who need flexibility in their lives to accommodate a full or part-time job, and for focusing on affordable degrees.
The school is also known for offering online college classes that can be attended and completed remotely before it became a mainstream practice. An article in the New York Times from 1994 showcased the school for giving students the chance to attend classes from anywhere, provided they had a "home computer, modem and telephone line."
Tony Siress, CEO and president of the Mountain View Chamber of Commerce, said that the chamber's education foundation has since raised $32,000 in scholarship funds so far. Under the structure of the Working Scholars program, students complete all of their credits with Study.com before applying for the scholarships, which is set aside to fund the last leg of the degree by paying for the classes at Thomas Edison.
Support for the program has been strong among the city's business community, Siress said, in part because their own employees have applied to be Working Scholars.
"We're able to point to employees in their organizations who have signed up," he said. "If you think about Kaiser and El Camino and PAMF, all of them have a very diverse workforce, and knowing that their employees are looking to complete their education is really a win."
Mayor Pat Showalter said she has been impressed with the company's approach to the program, and invited Cheli to make a presentation at the City Council meeting last week. She said education is vital, and that it's important to maintain diversity in the city by helping residents and employees in Mountain View who, for whatever reason, didn't end up finishing college.
"Not having a degree, that always hurts people," Showalter said. "When you look at the statistics ... that piece of parchment makes a big difference in many peoples' lives."
Study.com is planning to host an open house on Jan. 19 for current and prospective Mountain View Working Scholars, where students currently enrolled in the program will be sharing their thoughts on the program and how taking online classes fits into their busy schedules.
More information on the program can be found here.