Tuition-free college program for working Bay Area adults holds inaugural graduation ceremony
East Palo Alto Mayor Lisa Gauthier always wanted to finish her bachelor’s degree, but as a single mother of three, finding the time and money to go back to school seemed impossible.
Then she found a surprising way to do it — for free.
On Thursday, Gauthier, 54, crossed the graduation stage and received her degree in business administration at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. The mayor was one of 18 students in the first graduating class of a philanthropic program called Working Scholars, which gives employed Bay Area adults the chance to complete liberal arts or business degrees online at no cost. Their degrees were granted through Thomas Edison State University, an accredited public school in New Jersey.
Study.com, a Mountain View online education company, typically charges about $10,000 for a degree. But in 2017, its chief executive, Adrian Ridner, said he created Working Scholars to give back to the community and address income inequality where his company is based. Local companies — including tech giants Facebook, Google and LinkedIn — foot the bill for Bay Area residents accepted into the Working Scholars program.
“When it came time to investing my education dollars, I made sure my children could graduate,” Gauthier said of the three, who are now young adults. “I couldn’t afford getting a degree at a traditional college because I wanted to make sure they had the best opportunity. Because of my two jobs and all my work and being a mom, Working Scholars is the only thing that would allow me to study and get through my classes.”
It took Gauthier a year and a half, in addition to her mayoral duties and her second job — working to promote Study.com.
Gauthier’s children and her colleagues on the East Palo Alto City Council attended the ceremony Thursday night to cheer for her.
“They’re really happy that I’m leading by example,” Gauthier said. “If we’re expecting our young people to graduate with a college degree, it’s better if I can say, ‘Look, and I’ve done it.’”
Ridner opened his first Working Scholars chapter in Mountain View and has since expanded it to San Francisco, Gilroy, Sunnyvale and East Palo Alto. His company looks for regions that have “high density,” rather than low-income residents. Ridner said he hopes he can take the program nationwide.
But for now, he said he is excited about the first graduating class.
“I can’t believe this day is actually here,” said Ridner, 37. “All of a sudden, social impact — having an impact in our community — is not an abstract concept. It has 18 faces and 18 names that I get to cheer for as they’re walking through the stage.”
Study.com designed Working Scholars for adults who need degrees to advance to more senior positions in their fields, Ridner said. Many of the students the company accepts into the program have completed some college credits but dropped out for financial or personal reasons, while other admitted students have no previous college education.
Students work with a “success coach” online — employees of Study.com — whose job is to help motivate them and guide them through the program. The coaches encourage students to spend 10 hours a week on the platform, which can lead to a degree in less than two years, company spokeswoman Emily Johnson said.
California’s public community college system expects to open a similar online college to working adults on Oct. 1, for free or for very low cost. Although the new college, Calbright, will open to only a limited group during its first year, state officials say they eventually expect the program to educate thousands.
At Working Scholars, the admission system varies by location. In some cities, any adult can apply. But in San Francisco, for example, a pilot program is open exclusively to city employees in entry-level positions.
Neither Working Scholars nor Study.com awards a degree. Instead, academic credits that students earn through the program transfer to the mostly online Thomas Edison State University, which awards the degrees.
Graduate David Shaw Bass, 57, of East Palo Alto took his college classes while driving for Lyft. He said he used to flip back and forth on his phone between the Study.com app and the ride-hailing app, taking five-minute lessons between rides.
“It is wonderfully flexible. If online (education) had been more ubiquitous back in the day, I probably would have knocked out the bachelor’s a long time ago,” he said.
Bass said he was just two classes shy of completing a computer engineering major at UC Santa Cruz when bipolarism hit him “ferociously” and he dropped out. After working for startups, he found himself increasingly depressed and eventually became homeless on the streets of East Palo Alto.
Now he is working as an office assistant. In the Working Scholars program, Bass needed only a handful of classes to get his degree in computer science, he said, adding that he wants to earn a master’s degree in artificial intelligence and psychiatric health in hopes of helping others with mental disorders.
Another graduate, Tany Rios Castro, 25, said she was skeptical of Working Scholars in 2017 when she moved to Mountain View and saw flyers around the neighborhood advertising free tuition.
“I was a little bit hesitant because I wasn’t sure how that worked — a free degree. But after doing some digging I found out it was a legit program,” she said. “It was a great opportunity just not to have student loans.”
Her credits from community college in Los Angeles and those she took through Study.com transferred to Edison State, and she was able to graduate in a year and a half with a liberal arts degree, completing a final project in poetry. Castro said she wants to continue her education and find a well-paying job in a field she hasn’t chosen yet. But she said she hopes to be able to provide for her mother, who helped support her while she studied.
Pete Grieve is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter:@pete_grieve