Alternatives to Traditional Colleges Are Spreading

Image source: Wall Street Journal

Last year Aidan Cary, a bright high school student in Hampton, applied to the University of Virginia and other prestigious universities in the Northeast. But he ended up attending a nearly unknown institution, MissionU, for a very different kind of educational experience.

At MissionU, based in San Francisco, he is enrolled in a one-year, data-science program. He studies between 40 and 50 hours per week and visits high-tech companies in the Bay area as part of the educational experience. And he pays nothing up front. Instead he will repay MissionU with 15% of his salary for three years once he lands a job paying $50,000 or more.

As the Wall Street Journal writes, MissionU is part of a broader movement toward an alternate model of higher education:

A new breed of longer programs such as MissionU has begun to pop up. In California the Holberton School and the “42” program recently opened, and in Indianapolis the Kenzie Academy has begun its second class. While they remain focused on digital skills, they also add a smattering of general education courses—in areas like problem solving and teamwork—and market themselves as college alternatives.

“The degree is dead. You need experience,” says the website for Praxis, a five-year-old digital school based in South Carolina.

These new-breed institutions represent a new challenge for traditional four-year institutions of higher education. Unlike private career schools, MissionU, Praxis, and the Kenzie Academy aren’t targeting an adult population seeking workforce degrees and certifications — they’re targeting youngsters like Cary who would have gone straight from high school to college.

The value proposition is huge: You invest only one year of your life studying before you enter the workforce. The year of intensive study costs as little as $22,500 spread over three years, and only if you make a job paying $50,000 or more. If the program costs you more, it’s only because you’re making more. Plus, the colleges practically guarantee you a job at the end of the line. Cary figures he will come out $250,000 ahead compared to the traditional route.

And what do students lose compared to the traditional four-year, residential college experience? Well, they’re actually expected to work 40 to 50 hours a week, which may preclude a fair amount of partying and goofing off.

They also don’t get an accredited degree. But sheepskins are mainly valuable for signalling to the job market that someone is intelligent enough, diligent enough, and conformist enough to endure the four-year degree-earning process. Instead, Cary will earn a skill in great demand that will land him a job in a technology company, most likely in the Bay area. Once he enters the workplace, the sheepskin credential becomes superfluous — from then on, he’ll be judged by his job performance.

He’ll lose one more thing. While alternative colleges can teach a person how to work, they don’t teach their students why they are working, the Journal quotes Gardner Campbell, an English professor at Virginia Commonwealth University as saying. Without that context, he says, graduates of MissionU-like programs run the risk of becoming well-paid drones.

Ah, poor Mr. Cary will miss the value provided by the vaunted liberal arts curriculum. He can console himself that most graduates forget the vast majority of what they studied within a few years. Also, if Cary’s parents are like many others who find traditional universities to be teaching not the “liberal” arts but the “politically correct” arts, they may be perfectly happy to spare their child a learning experience increasingly resembling an indoctrination camp than an institution encouraging wide-ranging exploration of thought.

Can these alternative institutions be replicated, or do they cater to a narrow slice of elite students? After all MissionU is highly selective — its acceptance rate is in the single digits, comparable to an Ivy League school. Cary scored in the top 5% of the country on his SAT and graduated in the top 10% of his high school class. 

As long as critical skills are going begging in the workplace, I see no reason why these “alternative colleges” can’t proliferate. They offer a fantastic value proposition compared to the four-year college. The only real barrier is the brain-dead preference of H.R. offices for the credential of a four-year degree. But I expect that employers’ desperation to hire employees with critical job skills will overcome that prejudice.

Traditional higher-ed institutions don’t comprehend the degree of animosity they have engendered in the marketplace. First, they have made college nearly unaffordable for the middle class. Second, they have created learning and cultural environments that are ideologically hostile to roughly half the population. Their value proposition has become “Give us your children so we can indoctrinate them with alien values, and by the way, give us all your money.”

That’s not a viable long-term business model.

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10 responses to “Alternatives to Traditional Colleges Are Spreading

  1. It’s a form of apprenticeship! But shared by an industry made up of multiple companies, not a particular company. Most small or medium companies could not afford a real apprentice program, but this pooled approach is fascinating. The key is 1) screening for good applicants and 2) close adherence to training the companies need. This is an idea that will spread, I betcha.

  2. “He’ll lose one more thing. While alternative colleges can teach a person how to work, they don’t teach their students why they are working, the Journal quotes Gardner Campbell, an English professor at Virginia Commonwealth University as saying. Without that context, he says, graduates of MissionU-like programs run the risk of becoming well-paid drones.”

    I wonder if President Lincoln ever lost sleep worrying about the fact that he didn’t know why he was working.

  3. Agree. It is, in fact, an apprenticeship model evolved to the 21st century economy.

    And it’s not a great “discovery” in countries like Germany that operate that way and have for a while.

    see: ” The German Vocational Training System
    The German vocational education and training system, also known as the dual training system, is highly recognized worldwide due to its combination of theory and training embedded in a real-life work environment.

    The dual system is firmly established in the German education system. The main characteristic of the dual system is cooperation between mainly small and medium sized companies, on the one hand, and publicly funded vocational schools, on the other. This cooperation is regulated by law. Trainees in the dual system typically spend part of each week at a vocational school and the other part at a company, or they may spend longer periods at each place before alternating. Dual training usually lasts two to three-and-a-half years.”

    https://www.bmbf.de/en/the-german-vocational-training-system-2129.html

    Our problem in this country is that we have perpetuated a culture where you’re either “college material” or you’re a “working man” and College has become the “credential” for folks who have “succeeded”.

    I don’t think the concept of ” Liberal Arts ” is dead at all but on the other hand – it has not evolved and it’s become in some respects an exceedingly expensive anachronism… that will become mostly for the wealthy .. like “Prep Schools” if it does not change and it’s now in a “Kodak-like” situation where it sees no choice but to defend and rely on it’s current “business model”.

    The German-type education system is where we should be headed but the nostalgic among us.. don’t want to let it change.

  4. There is no shortage of great university opportunities and full degree programs in Germany, just a recognition that degrees need not be universal and there are other paths to a career. The downside of their system, from what I’ve heard (hardly an expert), is that children do get placed on tracks quite early.

  5. We don’t have to totally emulate Germany on the tracking especially if kids in poverty neighborhood schools get damaged even more by such a policy.

    But we also do a disservice to those who need some level of education and end up being encouraged to choose an expensive College option that they go into huge debt over – as opposed to assuring them an education that will get them a job. Currently – it’s a choice between the expensive debt-laden option or “you’re pretty much on your own” option… i.e. we have opposition to “free” post-secondary education …. i.e. can’t afford it because it would take away from the subsidies for the traditional 4-yr academic option.

    we screw up here when we set up a system that favors one option over others and essentially penalizes those who would pick an option other than the 4yr option if they had decent financial support, i.e. some level of “free” post secondary education.

  6. I always hesitate in thinking I can learn too much from modern Germany. For 45 years after WWII the socialist numbskulls in the USSR held East Germany back economically. For the last 28 years the smart and hard working East Germans have been freed by their return to a capitalist regime. I believe the impact of releasing the East Germans from socialism is still being felt today.

  7. Most of you are failing to miss the point with all the blather about debt, liberal arts, and apprenticeships. Apprenticeship, schlementiceship. We wouldn’t have the “need” for a college education were it not for the total failure of the public schools to educate children to anything like a reasonable standard. Most employers simply want people who can read, write, think, and do some math and algebra, the latter if they’re going to be setting up CNC machines. Oh, and maybe some computer training. Most employers are doing the training themselves because the schools are such abject failures at just about everything they touch. OK, Ok, I get it… They’re pretty good at teaching diversity and cross-gender studies in middle school. Simply wonderful.

    • re: ” We wouldn’t have the “need” for a college education were it not for the total failure of the public schools to educate children to anything like a reasonable standard.”

      that’s an interesting argument Crazy..

      Do other countries educate to the required level so they don’t need College?

      Or do our kids have to go to College just to get what other country kids get from K-12?

  8. “Their value proposition has become “Give us your children so we can indoctrinate them with alien values, and by the way, give us all your money.””

    Gee, Jim – and this on the day when all you ‘Hoos are engaged a warm and fuzzy unity fundraising drive. (President Sullivan is emailing me as a ‘Hoo parent, I guess). You might be a bit harsh there! (Hadn’t read your whole post.) And it’s Talent Acquisition now, not HR.

  9. re: our K-12 schools are not teaching what is required to be able to perform work for 21st century occupations.

    Is that really true? Has it always been true? If barely half the kids
    are currently rated as “proficient” in basic language, literacy and math by NAEP for US kids – if we made the curriculum more difficult – would even less kids achieve basic competency and proficiency?

    where do US kids rank compared to other countries kids – academically?

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