Social Capital Leads to Postsecondary Innovation


A “Basic Principles of Business Administration” textbook open on the table, a curious toddler – with a newfound interest in insects – in her lap, and a community of Parent Advisors supporting her education goals. This was the pathway to postsecondary inclusion and success envisioned by Ascend with the launch of the Aspen Postsecondary Success for Parents (PSP) Initiative on November 1, 2018: students who are parents supported by community and family along their postsecondary journey – from registration to completion.  

With more than 22 percent of students across postsecondary institutions raising a child, changes at the program and systems-level are critical to support this growing demographic poised to meet the demands of a labor market steadily requiring more education beyond high school. Ascend positions itself in this evolution as an advocate for parents and as an arbiter of the two-generation (2Gen) approach, which emphasizes the provision of opportunities for and that meet the needs of children and their parents together.  

Key to the success of the Aspen PSP Initiative is the group of 16 Parent Advisors – parents who work with Ascend to guide and accelerate our work by sharing their expertise, thought leadership, and commitment to making sure students who are parents have the supports they need to succeed in the program of their choosing. With a deep understanding of the importance of social capital for families, Ascend designs convenings that facilitate connections and learning at all levels. One Parent Advisor, Lesley Del Rio, who recently restarted her journey towards postsecondary completion, was able to build social capital through participating fully in the PSP convenings and developing new networks of support. This is her story.  

Lesley Del Rio was introduced to Ascend by Florence Crittenton Services of Colorado, a Denver-based nonprofit that supports teen mothers as they graduate from high school. Through speaking engagements on behalf of Florence Crittenton, Lesley was invited to join the Aspen PSP Parent Advisors. When asked why she joined, Lesley shared, “I wanted to go back to school and thought this would be a way to learn about how to do so and it just felt like a good place to share my story.” 

During the second PSP convening, Lesley had the opportunity to meet Sarah Saxton-Frump with PelotonU and learn about their unique online programs. Lesley leveraged her role as a Parent Advisor and worked with Sarah to create an individualized education pathway – through PelotonU – at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), led by Ascend Fellow Paul LeBlanc. “After the design lab, I realized that I never thought about my barriers to finishing postsecondary education. It came up that I really valued time with my son, and I wasn’t willing to compromise that,” says Lesley. Through this unique partnership between PelotonU and SNHU, this time barrier to completion was removed and Lesley was able to pick up where she left off in 2013 in her pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in business administration.  

The flagship PelotonU program is a personalized, college completion program that primarily serves adult learners through the competency-based degrees at three institutions: Western Governor’s University, Brandman University and SNHU. In competency-based programs, the focus is on the learner’s needs; students can move at a pace that meets their needs. They pay a flat-rate per term and are able to complete as many classes in that time as they are able. On average, students earn an associate degree in nine months and a bachelor’s degree in 36 months – faster than traditional programs. Students are paired with advisors and coaches that provide support navigating the system and academic tutoring along the way. Lesley’s coach at PelotonU, Holly Boerner, believes in a growth mindset which is embedded at the beginning of every student’s enrollment in the PelotonU program, which is based in Austin, TX. Coaches at PelotonU, like Holly, also build on the students’ strengths and foster numerous soft skills as soon as they join the program. 

Even though Lesley is not physically located in Austin, she says “the PelotonU community is really close.” She participates in online forums and communicates with other students via multiple social media platforms. There are also projects that require peer feedback and there is significant staff-to-student interaction through surveys.  

The PelotonU experience has been life-altering for Lesley, and her 8-year old son, Leo. Lesley is now two years from completing her degree: a milestone she did not think was possible before becoming an Aspen PSP Parent Advisor. According to Lesley, a motivating piece of the experience was connecting with the other Parent Advisors, and another important source of motivation has been Leo. For Lesley, motivation is seeing the impact her postsecondary completion journey has had on her son. He has taken on the role of accountability partner. He asks about her meetings with Holly, rubs his mom’s back while she’s doing homework at the table and accompanies her on trips to the library to meet with her tutor and coach. “There are a lot of things that I didn’t realize he was cognizant of……he talks about going to college too.” This, of course, makes Lesley happy because this is the beginning of a tradition of going to college for the Del Rio family. “How I’m setting the ground for him is that [going to college] is something that we do – and you might do it differently – but it’s something we do in this family.” 

Portia Polk is the program associate for Ascend at the Aspen Institute, providing support for Ascend’s postsecondary achievement and innovation work.

Lesley Del Rio is a program manager at the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Denver and Aspen Postsecondary Success for Parents Initiative Parent Advisor.