A venture-backed company today announced a new educational offering billed as an alternative to the standard undergraduate experience. It will last only one calendar year, feature a curriculum designed in close coordination with well-known employers, and cost nothing—at least at the outset. Students who attend, however, must promise to give up 15 percent of their incomes for three years once they land a job that pays $50,000 or more.
The unusual new program is called MissionU, founded by Adam Braun, a 33-year-old entrepreneur best known for his work building schools in developing countries. He started his career as a consultant for Bain & Company, but during a trip to India when he was 25 years old he was inspired to start a nonprofit, Pencils of Promise, and to write a bestselling memoir called “The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change.”
MissionU swirls together some of the trendiest ideas to disrupt college as we know it, in what is one of the few upstart projects to claim it can replace the residential experience. It is also an embodiment of what some traditional academics have feared most about such disruptions—focusing on career preparation and treating the liberal arts as an add-on feature of higher education that can be done later, if at all.
The inspiration for Braun’s foray into higher education came partly from his wife, who he says wracked up so much college-loan debt that it became “crushing to so many aspects of her life.” And he argues that he hears from CEOs and other corporate leaders that colleges are not preparing graduates for the jobs that would help them repay those students loans.
“Institutions should be accountable to the outcomes of their students,” says Braun, calling the debt burdens shouldered by many college graduates “a massive, massive societal injustice.” As a traditional college student, he says, “you’re taking a huge risk by betting on the institution without the institution really betting on you.”
MissionU won’t build a traditional campus: Teaching will be done online—although classes will be held at set times in virtual classrooms (in other words, synchronously). Students will be admitted to the program in “cohorts” of about 25, and everyone in each cohort will live in the same city or town, so that they can have an opening three-day orientation and monthly in-person meetups. “It’s really, really important that you still have these in-person touch points,” says Braun.
The first cohort is scheduled to start in September, most likely in the San Francisco Bay Area. New cohorts will be added each quarter, and in new cities over time. The company will hire working professionals to teach the courses. The whole model seems designed to scale easily, and he says the amount and speed of growth will depend on student demand.
The target audience will be “traditional college-age students” from 18 to 22, he says. Much of the focus from day one will be preparing students for jobs in their chosen major, and practicing “soft skills” like teamwork, and even life skills, like personal finance.
The first quarter (as in business quarter, not academic quarter) will focus on “foundations,” which Braun describes as “eight hard skills that we think will make you an effective employee in any company.” Among those are Excel spreadsheet software, public speaking, and business writing. The second quarter will be devoted to what he called “discovery,” and will take "students through a deep process of introspection and self-discovery that help them define their sense of purpose and where they want to point their compass in life." The third quarter will involve a “deep dive on your major.” And in the final quarter students will be broken up into small teams and work on real-world problems supplied by a set of partner companies. In some ways the project is like a mini-internship, done remotely. Then the final six weeks of the program will be spent on “career launch,” to teach students tips on job interviews and even salary negotiation.
At the start, MissionU will offer only one major: data analytics and business intelligence. But it expects to add more majors soon, and not all of them will be in technology, says Braun, who says that nursing is one that is being considered.
A roster of well-known companies—and darlings of Silicon Valley—have signed up to participate. They include Uber, Lyft, Spotify, Warby Parker, Casper, Birchbox, Plated, 2U, and Chegg. (Facebook has also been an advisor to the effort but is not formally a partner.) “In designing our curriculum, we actually start with employers first,” says Braun.
“What they recognize is that the traditional college undergraduate is coming out unprepared for the job,” he says. “They’re spending a tremendous amount of time and energy and money” on hiring and training as a result, he argues.
For students, one thing that won’t be found at MissionU is Shakespeare, or any of the general-education courses that are the hallmark of a traditional liberal-arts degree.
“There is certainly a wonderful place in our society for the liberal arts,” says Braun, who himself graduated from Brown University. “I just don’t think that every single young person should be asked to commit so much of their” money to them, he adds. “The bachelor’s degree as a one-size-fits all no longer works.”
These days students can always take Shakespeare or other courses later, once they’re settled in their careers, thanks to free MOOCs, he says. “What we all need to acknowledge is that we’re now in an era of lifelong learning,” he adds.
The company is set up as a public benefit corporation, meaning it is a for-profit that emphasizes its social mission. Last fall it raised $3 million in a seed round of investment, according to Braun.
One of those early investors is Fern Mandelbaum, co-founder and partner at Vista Venture Partners and a lecturer at Stanford University’s business school. She says that today’s high school students are presented with the choice of either going to college, or pursuing a trade, such as plumbing. Her hope is that MissionU adds another option. “And I truly believe that some of these students may go to college someday,” she adds.
MissionU plans to start taking applications today, and it will be an unusual admissions process. Officials are not asking for SAT scores, for one thing. And applicants must go through an “admissions challenge,” which includes a group project with other applicants. The sessions will be recorded, and the way applicants solve problems will be as important as whether they get the right answer.
Too Job Focused?
Bryan Alexander is a futurist, consultant, and close watcher of higher education trends. He says he applauds the experimental nature of MissionU. “I don’t know if it’s a good idea, but I’m interested in it,” he says. He did have one firm prediction about it: “Traditional academics are going to hate this with a passion,” he says. “It’s the exact opposite of what they see the undergraduate experience being about.”
Even traditional academics who have been active in teaching innovation for years are among those with concerns about the model. One of those is Gardner Campbell, an associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“This seems to be an employment service and on-the job training, at the employee’s expense,” he says. “Going to work and earning money is an important thing, but at the same time it’s not the only thing,” he adds, noting that liberal arts colleges help 18-22 year-olds understand the complexity of the world and find their place in it. "Not just to get and keep a job, but to think creatively and more expansively about what you want to do with your life," he says. “Part of what higher education does is open the door for students to look at the designed and built world around them, of what their species has done for good and for ill, and help them figure out what part of this will you now build. What part of this will you now improve.” And that he worries that someone going to MissionU would miss out on that critical component.
“Is this raising up a generation of people who are going to be able to make unique contributions to the benefit of society? I don’t think so,” he says.
When asked to respond, Braun replied by e-mail: “MissionU is not just about skill development. It is about holistic self-development that puts students in a position to benefit from their education rather than be held back by it. There are a growing number of students who don’t need four years and a crushing amount of debt to determine what they want to do with their life, and for those students MissionU gives them another option."
One of the most striking aspects of MissionU is its financial model, though it is not alone in experimenting with so-called income-share agreements. Some coding boot camps have tried the approach, and even some traditional colleges, including Purdue University, are experimenting with the approach on a limited scale.
Beth Akers, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is among those watching the trend closely. She says that one downside of the arrangements is that typically students end up paying back more than they would have if they took a traditional loan—though they don’t have to worry about getting themselves into a situation where they can’t pay a student loan back.
“The question really is how much do students dislike carrying that risk themselves and are they willing to pay a premium?” she says. For now, she says that answer is “unclear.” One recent survey by the American Enterprise Institute found that many students who were initially skeptical of income-share agreements warmed to them after learning more details about how they compare to traditional loans. “As college gets more and more expensive, we will see more of a willingness to hedge that risk,” says Akers, who is author of the book, “Game of Loans: The Rhetoric and Reality of Student Debt.”
A broader concern is whether bad actors could come along and offer terms that end up trapping students in difficult repayment situations, essentially turning them into modern-day indentured servants. That is why some, even those offering such agreements, are calling for regulations to set clear limits on what can be offered to establish trust in the idea.
Richard Garrett, chief research officer of Eduventures, says that MissionU could pose a challenge to traditional colleges.
“I’ve long thought that college is vulnerable to the question of, ‘Does it have to be this long and involved and complicated and could you come up with a one-year program that seemed to be very rounded?’” he asks.
There’s still the question, though, of whether MissionU brings new opportunities for underserved students, as its leaders say they hope to, or whether it is another new option for the education haves.
Jeffrey R. Young (@jryoung) is a Senior Editor at EdSurge.