Have you ever thought about how nice it would be if you could go back to college, just for the sake of learning something new, in a field you don’t know much about, with no tests, homework or studying to worry about? And you won’t need to take the SAT or the ACT to be accepted? You can, at least for a day, with something called One Day University, the brainchild of a man named Steve Schragis, who about a decade ago brought his daughter to Bard College as a freshman and thought that he wanted to stay.
One Day University now financially partners with dozens of newspapers — including The Washington Post — and a few other organizations to bring lectures to people around the country. The vast majority of the attendees are over the age 50 and interested in continuing education, and One Day University offers them only those professors identified by college students as fascinating. As Schragis says, it doesn’t matter if you are famous; you have to be a great teacher. For example, Schragis says that since Bill Gates has never shown to be one, he can’t teach at One Day University.
In most places, the full price is between $149 and $199 to attend for the day, though subscribers to partner organizations can get discounts.
One of the salient things about One Day University is that the heart of the business is old-fashioned learning. People show up in a big room, sit down and listen to a professor deliver a lecture. Schragis, in this Q & A, explains why he thinks he’s been successful, who attends the lectures and which are the most popular.
Q. Tell me about One Day University. What is it? Why did you start it?
A. I launched One Day University nine years ago in New York, and it now operates in 22 states and 48 cities. The “school” is sort of a hybrid between education and entertainment, at least that’s how I see it.
We have sought out the most popular professors from nearly 50 different colleges and universities. At the beginning it was Ivy League only, but we’re well past that now. Some are heads of their departments, tenured, and have numerous academic honors and published works. Some are quite young, and have none of the “credentials” I just mentioned. What we focus on — solely — is how well a professor is regarded by students for his or her teaching ability. We pay very close attention to teaching awards, but very little attention (if any) to research awards.
Can Bill Gates teach Business at One Day U? No. Because he is not a celebrated professor on a campus. Can Al Gore teach at One Day University, given that he now teaches at Columbia? Probably not … unless the students there are raving about his teaching abilities.
We bring together these professors, usually four at at a time, to cities across the country to create “The Perfect Day of College.” Of course we leave out the homework, exams, and studying! Best if there’s real variety, both male and female profs, four different schools, four different subjects, four different styles, etc. There’s no one single way to be a great professor. We like to show multiple ways to our students.
Most popular classes are history, psychology, music, politics, and film. Least favorite are math and science.
Q. How did you get the idea?
A. The idea for One Day U came to me in 2005, when my wife and I took our daughter to college (Bard) for her freshman year. The school had arranged for about a dozen professors to give interesting 10-15 minute presentations about their areas of expertise. I loved it … and so did everyone else. Nearly everyone was in my age range or older, and nearly everyone thought to themselves: “I wish I could stay here, instead of going back to the office on Monday.”
I really do love presenting these events — nearly 100 a year now — because we don’t promise anyone a networking opportunity, a better job, a chance to get rich, etc. We promise a good time and some fun and rewarding learning experience. That’s essentially why I started it.
I run One Day U with Kevin Brennan, my business partner, who joined in 2012. We have a staff of four others (soon to be six).
We “partner” with newspapers around the country in a unique way. They do the marketing, we set up and run the events. Newspapers need new revenue sources, and the Live event business is perfect for them. Here’s some demographic info from a survey last year:
2015 One Day U Student Survey
1. How old are you? (obviously you don’t have to answer, but we hope you will!)
Under 45 — 4%
45-52 — 27%
53-59 — 29%
60-66 — 20%
67-73 — 12%
74-80 — 6%
Over 80 — 2%
2. What is your annual income? (once again, no need to answer if you don’t want to, but we hope you will)
$50-100,000 — 14%
$100,000-$200,000 — 44%
$200,000-$300,000 — 28%
$300,000-$400,000 — 7%
Over $400,000 — 7%
3. What is the last level of education you completed?
High School — 3%
College — 59%
Graduate School — 38%
4. Are you male or female?
Male — 46%
Female — 54%
5. How often would you consider attending One Day U events?
Once every year — 7%
2-3 times a year — 40%
4 -6 times a year — 44%
7-10 times a year — 9%
Q. How many people have taken courses over the years?
A. For the period January 2012 through today, it’s more than 44,200, according to our database.
Q. People today can go online and take great courses, or watch videos on their phones, or buy DVDS with great lectures. Why do you think the old-fashioned approach — face to face — is working?
A. There really is something special about live presentations. There is a unique excitement in the room that’s quite different than watching a computer screen. Anyone who’s ever been to a Broadway show knows what I mean. In fact, we think of Broadway shows, symphonies, opera, and other types of live theater as our “competition” — rather than lifelong learning programs or adult education classes at colleges and universities. That said, our courses are now available online since we launched the newest version of the website, but it is obviously a different experience.
Q. Can you walk us through a day at a One Day University event?
A. Four hundred to 1,000 people come, have their coffee and prepare to hear four great 70-minute lectures from four different professors on four different topics. All will have different teaching styles. Two in the a.m., two in the p.m., with a 70-minute lunch break. People feel like they are back in college, but there is no homework, tests, or studying. People tend to make friends and/or see people they haven’t seen in many years. Return rate at One Day U is just under 70 percent.
Q. What is the single most-popular course?
1. What Would the Founding Fathers Think of America Today (Wendy Schiller / Brown University)
2. Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness (Catherine Sanderson / Amherst)
3. Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War: Separating Fact From Fiction (Louis Masur / Rutgers)
4. Four Musical Masterpieces That Changed America (Anna Celenza / Georgetown)
Q. You partner with newspapers. How many? Also, do you partner with schools or other organizations?
A. We have 48 newspaper partners. And we partner with Tulane University, Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the 92nd Street Y in New York City. See the map below.
(correction: fixing identification in picture caption)