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Joe Gagnon, the President of the leading, career-focused online school Penn Foster, tied together his passion for cycling and learning to inspire students across the Northeast while also educating them on the value of a self-paced online education. Penn Foster is a global leader in online education, providing high school diplomas, career-focused certificate and degree programs in the fields of allied health, business, technology, education, and select trades through the Penn Foster College and Penn Foster Career School.
MO: Can you talk a bit about Penn Foster’s innovative solution to distance learning?
Joe: Sure. Penn Foster combines a century’s worth of expertise in high-quality distance education with flexible, affordable programming. We believe that we offer a scalable and affordable solution to education.
For example, we offer affordable tuition in a pay as you go model. There are no hidden fees and we offer 0% financing. It’s also important that we offer our students flexibility – they are caring for families and in some cases, working multiple jobs. Students need the convenience of studying where and when they choose, while still having time for activities that are important to them. Classes can work around student schedules, not vice versa. And, quality and reliability are key to any educational institution. When students enroll with Penn Foster, they are choosing a fully accredited education that can help train them for a better job and a better life.
Being online, it’s also very important that we offer multiple ways to support our students. Our dedicated instructors are just an e-mail or toll-free phone call away, and students can schedule time to talk with them, just like any other school. Over the last year, we have instituted a number of ways to connect with our students, including a rich student online community for our 150,000 students to connect with each other and their teachers through a number of social media channels. In fact, we actually just started using a technology called Vsnap to help us better our online program. With Vsnap, Penn Foster staff can easily record short video messages for students, as a more personal alternative to email or other text communication.
MO: What inspired you to tie together your passion for cycling to inspire students across the Northeast while also educating them on the benefits of a more non-traditional learning approach?
Joe: The Choose to Be More Tour really was the perfect title for the event – it captured in a few words the essence of what we wanted to accomplish. We, ourselves, chose to be more. Just a few short months ago, members of our team decided that we needed to get out to meet our students and get to know them more deeply: what their struggles are and what they want out of an education. We felt the three-day tour was a great format for us to get into the student mindset, meet them and hear what they really want and need.
MO: Can you talk a bit about the planning process behind your “Choose to be More” bike tour and any specific highlights from your trip?
Joe: It was truly a team effort. Months of planning went into this, from formulating the route, to building our support team, to inviting students to getting the word out to our community. While it took a lot of time to pull together, all of the pre-planning was critical to the event’s success. I will say that on the ride from Allentown to Philadelphia I do think that we found the steepest, longest road this side of the Atlantic. Of course, we all made it to the top and have photos to prove it. It was a fun day to ride – from the farms of Pennsylvania to the urban setting of Center City we saw what America is – a diverse beautiful landscape that is spectacular when seen from a bicycle. We all felt privileged to ride through it. And, it also made us realize that our student population is very diverse too, and that we need to continue to innovate and offer programs that can impact their lives in a meaningful way. I knew before the Tour that our mission was compelling – I am now convinced that we have an obligation to deliver on behalf of these students, who entrust us to help them – to change their lives, to Learn More, to Do More, to Be More.
MO: Who inspires you?
Joe: I am constantly inspired by the stories of our students. During the Brooklyn leg of our tour I met with over 20 students. I asked each of the students to tell their Penn Foster story and I heard remarkable inspiring stories. I heard about one student who was told over 25 years ago she was not smart enough to continue her education. Through Penn Foster, she now has her high school diploma and is on her way to an associates degree. I heard about a grandmother who just received her high school diploma because she thought she owed it to herself to do it. I hear the hardships our students go through – working full-time, working two jobs, raising their children and trying to continue their education. I feel that Penn Foster is providing a platform for these students to lift themselves up and provide a positive change.
MO: Why do you think that education needs to be reformed and where do you think we should be starting?
Joe: During my journey, I realized that we need to be more active in the lives of our students. We need to think about how THEY think about us and what we do for them. Creating more personal connections within the student community has great potential to increase students’ success.
Our goal is to make an education as accessible as possible, and we want to change the model in education. We are not only offering students a more personalized experience, but also insuring they can enjoy that experience debt free, through our unique payment structure. While most online education providers receive much of their revenue from student financial aid, Penn Foster does not – students pay as they go and graduate debt free. According to The Student Debt Project, the graduating class of 2010 left college campuses burdened by an average of more than $25,000 in debt. That means more than 37,000,000 college alumni are trying to pay off almost $1 trillion dollars of debt in a very tight job market. This is just another one of the ways we are aiming to transform the industry. Why? Because we have the means like never before and we know that educated human capital drives the GDP, meaning that corporations, governments and consumers are taking notice. Using education to propel adults to reach their potential – some of whom have not been successful in the traditional education system – requires a new system of education and not just an improvement on the current one. That is our goal at Penn Foster and to reach that goal we want to have a better understanding of what our students need and want. This bike tour helped us to begin to establish deeper relationships with our students and bring back learnings that we can incorporate into the education we provide. I promise this is just the first of many Choose to Be More Tours, and I cannot wait to get back on the road and continue my journey all over the country.
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