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Originally Published: Jun 20, 2024
Originally Published: Jun 20, 2024 Last Updated: Jun 21, 2024 6 min read
The founder of Campus.edu chats with Shaquille O'Neal
Courtesy of Campus.edu

High school students and recent graduates have the chance to take a free college course this summer, courtesy of none other than Shaquille O'Neal.

The basketball legend partnered with community college startup Campus.edu to cover the cost for 500 students to take an online class this summer taught by a professor from a top college. Applications for the “Try College” initiative are due next week (more on that below).

"What we're seeing today is too many kids wondering if college is still worth it,” O'Neal said in a news release announcing the program. “These students either feel like they aren't college material or believe the price tag is out of reach, and that's a shame.”

Students can choose one of four classes, led by professors who typically teach at the University of California, Berkeley, University of Maryland, Howard University and University of California, Davis.

The goal is to help students realize they are indeed “college material” while helping them earn transferable credits that will reduce what they have to pay if they do enroll in the future.

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A for-profit college building a debt-free degree

Campus, which started enrolling students in its degree program in 2023, has a lofty goal of solving low community college completion rates, which sit around 30% nationwide.

Founder Tade Oyerinde says he wants the school to be "unambiguously high-quality."

Campus students have to commit to enrolling full-time, and they take live online classes, taught by faculty who are adjunct professors at well-known universities. Tuition is tied to the federal need-based Pell Grant, which means if you qualify for the maximum grant, you can take courses for free.

What sets Campus apart, though, is its wraparound support, which is modeled after a successful program from the City University of New York system. Every student is offered a wifi-enabled laptop, and there’s unlimited math and writing tutoring. Students are also paired with a coach as soon as they enroll.

The school is aiming to hire and train enough of these "success coaches" to keep a 75 to 1 ratio of students to coaches as they grow enrollment. Given that the degree is online, Oyerinde felt strongly about the need to build personal relationships to keep students on track — “if you don’t go to class, someone reaches out the same day,” he says.

For now, Campus only offers one degree: an online associate’s degree in business administration. That may change in the future, but with fewer than 800 students enrolled, the company is first trying to figure out how to bring its model to scale.

Oyerinde says he chose to pursue a for-profit model, a sector that's highly criticized for its poor student outcomes, because it was the only way he saw to raise substantial capital fast. But he says the school’s backers aren’t interested in growing to turn a quick profit. (Instead, an independent board of trustees controls when, and how much, the school will grow.)

Campus’ first cohort, which was just a handful of students, graduated in April. According to data from the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or IPEDS, Campus has a completion rate of 61%.

Why Shaq wants to help you access higher ed

Shaq teaming up with a community college startup may seem random, but the four-time NBA champion has actually invested in several education ventures, including, as of earlier this year, Campus.

In an interview with Money after his investment was announced in January, O'Neal explained that he was pulled in by the idea that students could get access to a “world-class education” and a debt-free degree.

“If it wasn’t for basketball, my parents wouldn’t have been able to afford college,” he says, adding that he’s focused on spending his money where he can make a difference. “I don’t do the 'get rich quick' schemes. If it’s not going to change a person’s life, I’m not really interested.”

With the Try College program this summer, the idea is to give students exposure to a college environment early on — particularly for those who may not otherwise have access to college-level courses. They can choose to study intro to business, microeconomics, marketing or English composition.

(If they enroll in Campus after they graduate, the courses will count toward their degree, or Campus will work with them to help them transfer the credits, though that decision is ultimately up to the school where they end up.)

Students also will have access to many of the same resources full-time Campus students, including the success coaches and tutoring.

Applications are due June 28. Courses will begin in July and run for 11 weeks.

Applying is free, and there are no test score requirements or income cutoffs; you just need to be a high school junior, senior or recent grad, have a minimum 2.5 GPA, and be able to commit up to 10 hours a week. To apply, you have to submit a personal statement explaining why you want to participate.

This story has been updated to reflect that Campus' completion rate is 61% overall.

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