The Download: D.C. education technology start-up Quad Learning tackles college affordability

February 17, 2013

Phil Bronner describes himself as a kid who was “all over the place.”

“My dad had to keep his foot in my behind to keep me focused,” he said.

That was some foot. Bronner earned a degree in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University in 1992, followed by graduate degrees in law and business from the University of Pennsylvania.

For Bronner, education didn’t end there. He spent 12 years as an investor at Novak Biddle Venture Partners, a Bethesda-based venture capital firm, where he financed several education technology companies. Last year, Bronner started his own with co-founder Chris Romer, a former Colorado state senator.

“When I look back over my venture career, I tended to get involved in companies very early, and I was very active,” Bronner said. “Operating a company is very different from being an investor, but I think I had a reasonable lens, given how active I was with my portfolio.”

His latest, District-based Quad Learning, looks to bring down the expense of higher education by making it more appealing for students to spend their first two years at lower-cost community colleges. They then transfer to four-year institutions.

The company created a selective program called American Honors that allows community colleges to offer rigorous instruction and personalized advising that replicates the academic caliber and classroom dynamic found at some four-year universities.

Tuition for the program currently runs about $6,000 — a price tag that Bronner says costs more than most community colleges, but less than a four-year university. Pilot programs are under way at the Community Colleges of Spokane in Washington state and Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana.

“This whole notion of college affordability is a really big deal for students, and they really worry about graduating from college with a large amount of debt,” Bronner said.

The cost of attendance — tuition, room, board, books, et cetera — at public and private universities has soared in recent years. As a result, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reported last year that student loan debt surpassed $1 trillion.

But a business such as Quad Learning still has its share of challenges. For one, it requires students with the academic chops to attend four-year schools to forego that experience temporarily. It also requires top schools to make spots available to transfer students after two years.

Bronner said those schools, like students, are wrestling with college affordability and the reality that more top-tier students may begin their education at community colleges to ease the financial burden.

Quad Learning has raised about $11 million from investors since January 2012. Financial backers include a slate of local venture capitalists, such as New Enterprise Associates, New Atlantic Ventures and Swan and Legend Fund, as well as outsiders like Comcast Ventures.

“If you would have asked me a month or two before I started working on Quad Learning or American Honors, will you ever found a company? I would have said no. I just became passionate about this particular issue,” Bronner said.

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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