How JetBlue is helping crewmembers soar above college debt

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A decade ago, in a talk I gave at Stanford, I recalled how I’d set 10 seemingly impossible goals and surprised myself by achieving nine of them. I noted that I’d been inspired by John Goddard, the 20th-century American adventurer-explorer who as a teenager had listed 127 goals and then gone on to reach more than 100 of them. One graduate student at the talk was Bonny Simi. She came up afterward to tell me how Goddard’s story had likewise inspired her to set her sights impossibly high – in Bonny’s case to attend Stanford, make the U.S. Olympic team and become a pilot. She accomplished all three goals.

Fast forward a decade, Bonny, now a JetBlue executive, has grown the idea of setting big goals to one of helping JetBlue crewmembers achieve their dreams of finishing college without the burden of overwhelming debt – and, importantly, without having to drop out of the work force to do it.

Roxanne Hawkins-Marshall, pictured, is the program’s first graduate. Growing up in Harlem, Roxanne is the 10th of 12 siblings. Today, having served for six years in the Army Reserve and raised three kids, she’s a JetBlue dispatcher. In her busy life, she earned her associate degree, but never had the chance or the financial resources to complete her education. When she heard about the JetBlue Scholars program, she jumped at it. “I want to finish what I started!” she says. “It’s been more than 25 years.”

 Supporting the objective of extending education to those willing to extend themselves – a key to Goddard’s success in achieving his goals – there are devoted “success coaches” at JetBlue who help students find the right courses and who encourage them to achieve their dreams. As the first of 400 active crewmembers moving to achieve the goal of a bachelor’s degree, Roxanne will be joined by another 50 this fall; another 2,500 have already expressed similar interests.

This program – like the ones set up at Starbucks and others being developed throughout industry – has been inspired by a revolution in online learning here and abroad. Sal Khan’s Khan Academy (reflecting the ideas in his book, One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined) has mapped out the possibilities for this new approach. One variation on Khan’s theme involves adult learners with full-time jobs who can benefit from customization, remote proctoring, and self-directed learning and pacing. Not only are such prospective learners unable to attend full-time bricks-and-mortar institutions, they’re often hindered by what Khan calls “the standard classroom model, with its enforced passivity and rigid boundaries of curriculum and time.” And of course there’s the issue of cost: Typical college graduates today are saddled with $35,000 of debt, the burden of which can ripple through their lives.

In JetBlue’s case, the company partners with accredited universities to help crewmembers do three things: (1) get credit for courses and training already completed; (2) take additional online courses at their own pace, the expense of which is largely covered for crewmembers with at least two years of tenure; and (3) ultimately achieve an associate or bachelor’s degree. Simplicity and affordability are the watchwords for those with scheduling challenges and family commitments – as well as financial constraints. Many of the other components of higher education – from dorms to cafeterias to Saturday afternoon football – simply are neither necessary nor affordable.

Education is empowering and ennobling. The former U.S. Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, has well described what aspiring learners just like Roxanne are seeking. “They want an education that will set them on a path to success,” he said. “They want control of their future, without decades of overwhelming debt. They want a college degree that will help them thrive, support a family, shape the world and contribute to their communities.”

Roxanne, Bonny, John Goddard and Sal Khan have – without knowing it – combined to help make post-secondary degrees attainable for many who might otherwise have given up on the dream. Hats off to all of them. Here’s hoping that others find their own variations on this theme of empowering people to achieve the goal of completing a college education.

By Joel Peterson