Campus buyer seeks to build upon a history of civic engagement
Seth Andrew, shown here describing his educational vision in a 2012 TEDx talk in Harlem, is founding president of Degrees of Freedom, a nonprofit organization that is developing a two-year college that, if all goes according to plan, will launch on the Marlboro College campus.

Campus buyer seeks to build upon a history of civic engagement

Degrees of Freedom founder seeks to bring change to college education at new school on Marlboro College site

MARLBORO — Seth Andrew talks fast. He has a lot to talk about.

Andrew, 42, is the founder of Democracy Builders, a nonprofit educational organization aimed at building civic engagement.

He is also the force behind Degrees of Freedom, a new hybrid two-year college-level degree program.

On May 28, Degrees of Freedom and the Marlboro College Board of Trustees jointly announced that Democracy Builders was in the process of buying the Marlboro campus.

Both parties declined to comment on the details of the negotiations in progress for the campus, which will become the home of a two-year program that combines low-residency time on campus, online learning, and apprenticeships.

Andrew said the school will gear its programs toward serving low-income and first-generation college students.

The low-residency program is designed to “blur the line between high school and college,” Andrew said. By cycling students through the campus in two-week increments, the physical space can serve more students, lowering the program overhead.

As a result, the cost for those students will be low enough - and, in some cases, free - to eliminate the financial impediments that have kept college far too costly for so many young people.

Andrew said the purpose of Degrees of Freedom is to provide students an inexpensive pathway to meaningful careers that offer economic stability and upward mobility.

“Expanding voice and choice” is a motto that permeates the educational programs created by Andrew and his coworkers. He believes both are prerequisites for healthy democracies, which require educated and engaged citizens.

Education helps people develop their voice, but financial security gives them choice - the choice of how they use their resources of time, money, and energy, he added.

Based in New York City and Washington, D.C., Andrew and his family - wife Lana Zak, a CBS News anchor, and their three young children - arrived in Marlboro on Tuesday,

They've begun settling in on the campus, which won't formally belong to Democracy Builders until the sale is final - in another couple of weeks or so, Andrew anticipates.

“Part of our agreement is that we needed to get started,” said Andrew, who is anticipating starting the operation with an established “core” team of faculty members to Potash Hill “that I have been working with and building for years.”

“Some of them are arriving today, and some will be arriving over the next couple of weeks,” he said on Tuesday.

Degrees of Freedom will eventually employ approximately 20 faculty members and 20 staffers on the campus, Andrew said, noting that he has already met Marlboro staffers eager to explore opportunities.

Inspiring new degrees

According to his LinkedIn biography, Andrew has served as a senior advisor at Johns Hopkins University, as adjunct faculty at Harvard University, as global director at Bridge International Academies in Nigeria, and as “an independent consultant on education and civic technology projects for dozens of universities, school systems, and companies serving tens of millions of students.”

According to Andrew, the program was a few years in the making.

The self-described social entrepreneur said that when he sees a problem for his students, he wants to build something that will solve it.

Andrew said that he started his career in special education in mostly urban schools. He also served as a superintendent and a school principal before launching Democracy Builders, which, according to a press release, “incubates new ventures to expand choice and voice for disenfranchised communities.”

Since 2005, the national nonprofit has produced dozens of programs and charter schools such as Democracy Prep Public Schools, Washington Leadership Academy, and Alumni Revolution.

Recently, however, Andrew has reconnected with some former students. They've told him frustrating stories about their college experience and jobs after their degrees.

Andrew said one-third of the students are performing extremely well at top-shelf institutions such as Stanford University and Smith College, as well as at several HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities). He does not worry about these students, who he believes will go on to satisfying careers and middle-class lifestyles.

Another third of his former students decided to pursue education at a number of state colleges, he said, and they have graduated with professional degrees and very little college debt.

Andrew described one such student studying to become a pharmacy technician. “She will be doing very well for a very long time,” he said.

Andrew designed Degrees of Freedom to serve the final third of his students, whom he believes are not being served by traditional four-year schools.

Some of these students have attended mostly small liberal arts colleges, many of which, according to Andrew, have not been “culturally responsive” and have lacked the support systems the students needed.

As a result, Andrew said his former students felt disconnected and isolated from their peers.

“If you are in a black or brown body today, it's a very different experience on a small liberal arts college today than for someone in a [white] body like mine,” he said.

In the end, these students have graduated with a lot of debt and without the skills they need to realize Andrew's ultimate goal: living secure financial and civically-engaged lives. In other words, he said, these students did not receive a return on their financial investment.

Other students have opted for community college, Andrew said, thus avoiding debt. Yet, he said, many told him the classes were boring and that they had better teachers in high school. All in all, they were not served well, he said.

In response, Andrew and a team of educators worked with a focus group and with feedback from students to build a new educational concept: Degrees of Freedom.

A different model

The Degrees of Freedom team developed a few parameters for the new program.

It would need to be low-cost, if not debt-free. It would need to be flexible and modular as well as intellectually rigorous. It would need to be culturally responsive.

And finally, the program would also need to be career-focused.

The program, according to the Democracy Builders website, “offers students in grades 11-14 a fully-funded, flexible, and career-targeted degree. After two years of purposeful coursework and compensated internships, students will have the skills and knowledge to begin their careers or pursue further education.”

One of the students Andrew said he often thinks of when discussing Degrees of Freedom is a former Democracy Prep student.

Andrew described this student - “a wonderful, smart, capable young man” - as being fluent in Korean and interested in STEM (science/technology/engineering/mathematics) programs. The student had received a full scholarship to a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania.

After bumping into Andrew on the 125th Street train in New York City, the student told him that he was working at Amazon. Andrew said he assumed the student was one of Amazon's coders.

Instead, the student told Andrew, “I'm a delivery driver.”

It was, he said, an “a-ha!” moment.

Amazon has two economies, said Andrew. People working in data and coding can have economic mobility. But people working in physical jobs, such as deliveries, find they have less economic stability.

While both jobs are noble, said Andrew, his student was dealing with $20,000 in debt and working a job that he could have gotten straight out of high school without having first studied for years to earn a degree.

A rapid plan for opening

Pending approval of the sale by the state attorney general's office, Andrew said the program will launch in the fall.

How does a new school go from not being able to disclose key details of its plans to opening in September?

“That's a great and fair question,” Andrew said. “The short answer is, we've been working on this for years. This is not a new idea that just came together.”

“The Marlboro acquisition is new, but the plan has been in the works for a long time,” he said.

The process of earning accreditation from the New England Commission of Higher Education can begin following licensure by the state.

Once licensed, the commission determines a school's eligibility. The school presents a self-study for candidacy, according to NECHE President Barbara Brittingham.

Degrees of Freedom will be open to all students, he said, though it is certainly a pipeline for Democracy Builders' other educational programs - a pipeline that makes it feasible to go from closing on the campus to opening the doors in one mere summer.

This September's students will also come from high schools that have previously expressed an interest in affiliating with Andrew to create new opportunities for their own older students.

”We're excited to welcome all students from across the country,” said Andrew.

After the purchase of the campus is final, he said, students will also be able to apply directly to the program in the usual matter.

The Degrees of Freedom features a hybrid model, which combines time on campus with online learning and pre-paid apprenticeships.

COVID-19 has highlighted the need for people to build their technological and online skills, Andrew said. But, he adds, the pandemic has also proved to people that they need human relationships and connections.

While on campus, students will receive health and mental health services. In their home communities, they will also have access to additional services as needed.

Andrew said that one way in which Degrees of Freedom's financial model will work better than a traditional college model, such as Marlboro College's, is in part because more students will move through the program. The fixed costs of maintaining the campus will be spread over an estimated 1,000 students each year. At last count, fewer than 200 students attended Marlboro.

Finding a home in Vermont

Why did Seth Andrew choose southern Vermont?

First, he and his family really love Vermont and wanted to spend more time in the state, he said.

With Vermont colleges closing, he started digging into the idea of buying a college campus and what it would take to launch Degrees of Freedom.

Andrew said that he helped consult for the former Southern Vermont College in Bennington, where he met with the then-president to discuss options for the school with an eye of potentially taking over its management. By that time, though, the school had too much debt and its board of directors had already let go of the school's accreditation.

Similarly, he said he also met with stakeholders of the former Green Mountain College in Poultney.

Andrew added he really likes Marlboro's connection with the Marlboro Music Festival, which retains a 99-year lease for use of the campus during the summer months. He also likes the size and scope of the 58-building campus, which comes with more than 530 acres.

“We're really excited to be in southern Vermont,” he said.

Addressing early community concerns

Shortly after the announcement of the intended sale, community members began raising concerns that Democracy Builders is connected to charter schools - publicly funded schools that often come with specialized focus and less accountability than traditional public schools. In some cases, charter schools are operated by for-profit entities.

Saying that he welcomes the conversation, Andrew sees charter schools as part of the solution.

“Charter schools are not a right-wing plot to privatize public education,” said Andrew.

With that said, Democracy Builders “is not a charter school project,” he said. “This is a new innovative model for higher education.”

Andrew, who worked in the administration of former President Barack Obama from 2013 until 2016, added that Obama was a “big supporter” of the concept.

While in government, he worked as a senior advisor in the executive office of the president and for then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Questions posted in various Facebook groups have raised questions about Democracy Builders' finances. Specifically, people have not found a straight, chronological line of Form 990s for Democracy Builders.

Those forms are public tax documents the IRS requires tax-exempt nonprofits to file.

Andrew said that his projects are always in compliance with the IRS's filing requirements. He also noted that because Democracy Builders has launched multiple nonprofits, that these organizations will file 990s as their own entities.

Similarly, Degrees of Freedom is a nonprofit entity organized separately, as are Andrew's other projects, he noted.

Andrew shared an email with The Commons that he had sent to a Marlboro College representative asking questions about the organization's 990s.

In the email he wrote, “Because [Democracy Builders] is an incubator constantly evolving and launching new ventures, I can understand why some members of the community would be confused by our 990 history which represents $200 million in publicly reported annual revenue in 2016-2017 alone, and more than $1 billion since 2005.”

Andrew added, “We welcome questions and transparency, but as I mentioned on Facebook, we don't engage with cynicism or obstructionism.”

Some have questioned why Andrew would launch a program during a pandemic and at a time when higher education is struggling to find students.

He believes that when old systems are failing, it is the perfect time for innovation.

Also, with an emphasis on remote learning and the isolation afforded by the college's remote setting, “I do think our unique offering is actually even more appealing in a COVID world, so we do feel confident about getting our founding class in,” Andrew said on Tuesday as he prepared for a two-week quarantine.

And, he added, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

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