Over the past decade, brick-and-mortar outposts have popped up across the U.S. to offer students who take online college courses a physical space to study and interact. In Denver, there’s a suite in an office complex. In Austin, there’s an airy hall that resembles a co-working facility. In Philadelphia, there’s room in a modern high-rise.

Calling themselves “hybrid colleges,” these mini campus centers have set big goals for themselves, such as bringing college within reach for people historically left out of higher education.

Now, more than a dozen of these nonprofits are strengthening their bonds and committing to shared goals by creating the Hybrid College Network.

“The network is incredibly collaborative. They’re proud of the model because it is serving students really well,” says Lauren Trent, CEO of AdvanceEDU in Colorado, which launched in 2020. “There is mutual interest in learning from each other, when the models are different, what is driving student success?”

Hybrid college programs are a symbiosis between online higher ed institutions and nonprofits that provide place-based support systems. Students pay tuition to the colleges, which then share revenue with the nonprofits, which use the funds to pay for services that students access in person, including coaching, career advising and assistance with basic needs, such as meals and child care.

The website for the Hybrid College Network bills the model as “more effective than community colleges, more efficient than 4-year colleges, and more affordable than online colleges,” citing the low tuition rates of its member programs, and the high persistence rates of the students those programs serve. The concept is designed to improve college access and degree completion, especially for people who pursue higher education part-time—a group that historically has had low graduation rates. The strategy is somewhat similar to one that some online colleges have tried themselves by planting their own hybrid campus locations.

“The supports that we provide are meant to help streamline and simplify the college experience for students who by themselves would struggle to manage across all realms,” Trent says. “The ability to come in and have quiet study space, Wi-Fi, staff support, meals, child care on site—it’s a game-changer for a lot of students.”

The model revolves around competency-based, online degree pathways. Most programs in the network partner with Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America, according to Hudson Baird, executive director of the nonprofit PelotonU in Austin, although some support students enrolled through Western Governors University and Brandman University, among other institutions.

Instead of tests and essays, competency-based education assigns students projects inspired by “real-world” scenarios drawn directly from work environments, Trent says. For example, coursework for a business degree may ask students to assess the financial status of an organization, consider whether to lease or buy a facility, analyze how to invest marketing resources and write all that up in a memo to a fictional boss.

One benefit of this approach is that it “tends to be extremely engaging and relevant” for students, Trent says. But a downside, she adds, is that there are only a few competency-based pathways available, limiting many students to degrees in business, communications, general studies and health care management. To expand the options, AdvanceEDU helps interested students earn an associate degree from Southern New Hampshire University, then transfer their credits to Colorado State University-Global Campus to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Research is ongoing about the efficacy of competency-based education degree programs. Some have been criticized for lacking substantive teaching, but advocates argue that the programs make college more flexible and affordable.

Indeed, affordability is a top priority of the hybrid college model, Trent says, and many programs peg their tuition rates to the Pell Grants that the federal government offers to low-income students.

Just like at community colleges and four-year universities, many hybrid college programs and services have moved online during the COVID-19 pandemic. But when students are able to gather in person at their hybrid college centers, leaders say they get a taste of the campus life that so many students who are enrolled in more-traditional institutions value.

“Friendships form, even romances form,” Trent says. “They get a lot of community from seeing each other here.”