Reactions to a College Alternative: Debating the Merits of MissionU

Digital Learning

Reactions to a College Alternative: Debating the Merits of MissionU

By Jeffrey R. Young     Apr 18, 2017

Reactions to a College Alternative: Debating the Merits of MissionU

A for-profit startup recently launched what it calls an alternative to traditional college, that takes only one year to complete, is advised closely by big-name employers, and costs nothing at first, though students have to later pay back a portion of their incomes. What’s missing are the general-education curriculum and traditional liberal arts courses.

It’s called MissionU, and the reaction has been mixed, and passionate. Some academics have trashed it as a kind of employment service passing itself off as education. While others have praised it for trying to shake up the higher education system.

For this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast, we decided to try something different. We put together a virtual panel discussion, inviting people with a variety of views on MissionU to face off—including its founder, and a critic. Our hope was to start a dialogue and get beyond misperceptions on both sides. That means that the episode is a bit longer than usual, but it gets pretty lively, and we hope you’ll listen through to the end.

The discussion we're having today actually began on Twitter, but it was limited by the 140-character limit. So this group was gracious enough to come on the EdSurge Podcast today and talk about some of the issues at greater length, and dig into some of the issues raised by MissionU, and by other higher ed models that we're seeing a lot of these days.

First a quick description of MissionU: It has "U" in the name, but it's not trying to be an accredited university. Yet it is trying to serve as something that a person might go to instead of a four-year college. It's one year only. It's very career-focused, and it has an income share agreement, where the students don't pay anything at the very outset. But after they've graduated and they've got at least $50,000 in salary, they are promising to give 15 percent of their incomes for three years.

Here’s our panel:

  • Adam Braun is an entrepreneur who founded MissionU. He previously started Pencils of Promise, a nonprofit that has opened hundreds of schools in developing countries.
  • Bryan Alexander is a consultant and futurist. He runs the Future Trends Forum video chat.
  • Gardner Campbell is an associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University. He has been active for many years experimenting with new formats of teaching, with technology, and thinking about how to teach better at colleges.
  • Marie Cini is provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Maryland University College, which has a high number of nontraditional college students and has a long history of serving that population.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. We encourage you to listen to a complete version below, or on iTunes (or your favorite podcast app).

EdSurge: Adam what was is the main problem you are trying to solve? Why come in and start this brand-new, very different model?

Braun: Things really shifted for me when it became personal, when I met the woman who is now my wife. She had over $110,000 of student debt without achieving a bachelor's degree, and, as I'm sure many of the listeners to this podcast are familiar with, there's over 31 million Americans who have some credit without that degree. My wife is one of them.

I saw this absolutely crushing burden that she was carrying—the very thing that was supposed to most enable her to achieve a better future was really going to keep her in this cage. That's when I set out to really understand this space as deeply as I could, and see if there is an existing institution or entity that I could join or, as an entrepreneur, start something from scratch that could ultimately try and bring some new ideas that other institutions could adopt.

Increasingly, students are going to college with the belief that it's a pathway to a better job. And, many institutions don't see that as their core responsibility. I wanted to build something that really did, and serve that need.

One of the things that you decided to leave out of MissionU is the liberal arts. What is the rationale for that?

While I went through a liberal-arts experience—I went to Brown for undergrad—and it was really beneficial for me. I also was in a position where my parents both came out of tremendous poverty in their lives and enabled me to go to a four-year college debt-free. Now I think it's over $37,000 on average. For today's freshmen, it will be over $50,000 by the time they complete.

When I think back to the four years I spent on Brown's campus, the things that were really tremendously beneficial for me were my experiences outside of the classroom, interacting with my peer set and those conversations you need to pay for via tuition. You can actually have those nowadays, just with scaffolded experiences with your peers.

Gardner, I know you've thought a lot about general education, and what colleges can do to prepare them to be citizens. What is your reaction to this argument that maybe that can be something picked up later on?

Campbell: I would challenge anyone to find a thoughtful liberal-learning curriculum that has been carefully structured by experts for free on the internet. What we do have are an astonishing and growing number of open educational resources, which I am very glad for. But, the specific value that's added within the university setting, with a structured and community-based approach to liberal learning, is that you have a much better opportunity. At their best these provide a sense not as "mission you" but "mission us." When I read statements like, "a bachelor's degree no longer makes sense for most people," that seems to me to be a deliberately reductive argument that ignores the enormous value that liberal learning within colleges and universities contributes to civilization.

Adam, are you worried at all that, even though you're offering something that might be achievable to some people, that they are somehow going to miss out on something that might keep them so career focused or limit them on later things, because they're not, out of the gate, getting this kind of broader background to think through what they want to be when they grow up, really?

Braun: One thing I would say is that the statement that a bachelor's degree no longer makes sense for most people is heavily rooted in the financial implications around cost and the debt burden that many of them are taking on. I would say with deep empathy, I wish that every single person could experience a four-year bachelor's degree, but not every single person really wants that. A lot of young people that I've met are incredibly career focused. They want to get to work. They want to start contributing to either a company or broader society, and they don't feel that they need that four to six years of coming of age.

Bryan, I want to hear your thoughts here. What's at stake? How does this fit into the bigger picture?

Alexander: Because this is an audio-only medium, you guys can't hear me nodding at both of you. I think the traditional undergraduate experience is increasingly becoming a niche, and our sense of it as normative is rapidly becoming obsolete. The normative student within a few years is going to be an adult learner, probably one supporting a family, possibly working part or full-time at the same time. The 18-year-old who leaves home to go and discover themselves and take four years to do so at a residential setting is going to become a minority. So, in some ways, Adam, your project is very future oriented.

Adam is quite right to give more-precise amounts. I mean, the amount owed by American students is between 1.3 and 1.4 trillion dollars. It's the highest of any nation in history.

The good news is, for a student that completes an undergraduate degree and goes on to have a productive career, they tend to make a lot more money by virtue of doing so, than they did from that $30,000 investment. So, what some economists call "the college premium," is often between $300,000 and $400,000. For that kind of bonus, a $30,000, $37,000 debt is a terrific investment. That's a bargain, in fact. So, that's the plus side.

The downside, though, is that it doesn't work for everyone. It depends a lot on your major. It depends on the kind of career that follows as a result. It isn't for everyone and the data is still kind of iffy. And, additionally, there's a problem that women tend to still have a smaller college premium than men do.

But what worries me is that neither Gardner nor Adam has outlined a solution. Adam's solution is for one sliver of higher education. Gardner throws us back on higher education trying to fix itself. I think both of those leave the larger problem unaddressed.

Marie, at the University of Maryland University College, you're all about addressing some of these same challenges in different ways. Do you want to weigh in here about what do you think about the MissionU, or is there a way to tread the needle so that students can both have something closer to a traditional college education, but not be in this kind of debt we're talking about?

Cini: There's a lot of "either/or," and we really should be thinking "both/and." We have 85,000 students around the world, who are primarily adult students. Some are in the military, many are civilians, their typical age is 32, and what I can tell you about these students is none of them live in a residential campus. Most of them have kids. They're also taking care of parents or other family members.

But what we know is that we can't just ask our students, or even tell them, that the smart thing to do is to simply take a four-year degree and then go figure out what you want to do. We ask our students all the time why they're back in college, and something like 60 percent say they are looking for a new career path, 20 percent are looking to move up in their career, and another 20 percent are doing it for self-growth. It's sort of a step into the middle class.

Of course, we embed the liberal arts, but let me say something about liberal arts and Gen Ed in general. It is only at the smallest, most elite schools where you find a very comprehensive, well-thought-out general education curriculum that all students are taking. What the majority of students are getting in large, state institutions, even large private institutions, because it doesn't make a lot of sense to have small Gen Ed classes, are large lecture halls. Students are given choices across a number of Gen Ed courses.

To think that that is a coherent experience, that all students are walking away with better thinking and better outcomes, is to not really understand and see what goes on in higher ed. In fact, we are currently in the process of rethinking our General Ed courses so that students have fewer choices, and each choice that our students have has very intentional outcomes built in. But, without thinking about it and planning it intentionally, these things just don't happen by osmosis.

That said, I think that all universities have a lot of work to do. We can’t separate out "Do students want a job or should we help educate them for a larger world and their community?" It's both, and I think we're fooling ourselves if we don't try to do both for our students, because that's what they need.

I guess the hard question is, without accreditation, how do you ensure that this is going to be worth the time that the students are investing, and the money later, when they're paying it back?

Braun: For us, the ultimate accountability is not at this point to a regional or national accreditor, it's to employers. So, we start with employer partners— companies like Spotify, Lyft, Warby Parker, Uber, Casper and a whole bunch of others.

I wouldn't say that I'm completely opposed to the idea of us becoming an accredited institution or in some capacity developing a partnership with a really forward-thinking and progressive institution. We've had several—about four different colleges just in the last week—who have reached out to explore partnerships with us.

But right now what we're really focused on is understanding the dynamics of the employer marketplace—because that's the type of student that we're attracting.

Gardner, this focus on employers is an interesting aspect that is very different from traditional higher education.

Campbell: I completely agree that many aspects of current higher education are badly in need of repair, refurbishment, and, in part, replacement. We do have to think very, very hard about the way in which the ideals of a liberal learning basis for education are ideals that are not realized in the way universities have set up their curricula. But I would say that the failure of ideals doesn't mean that the ideal is bad or unworkable.

Let me speak to the question that you've asked. We hear phrases like "skills-based, career-focused, the dynamics of the marketplace," and so forth. And, obviously, making a living is a very great thing. But, I think we need to be very, very careful about what causes what, where are the means, where are the ends, where's the tail, and is it wagging the dog?

When I read something like I do on MissionU's webpage, "Curriculum is informed by top companies," and I think, "Well, what will that curriculum be? Here's how to succeed at Uber?" Never mind that the gig economy doesn't work for people as a platform for making a living, getting benefits, or, as we've now found out, even being a person with much free will left over. A company like Uber, that uses gamification and psychological manipulation strategies to continue to extract value from the particular gig that they've got, somebody driving for them, that's kind of spectacularly backwards from this vision of, "No, you'll have a secure job and a good future, and you'll have great soft skills."

Adam, do you want to weigh in on that?

Braun: Yeah, a couple of things. The idea that Uber is using gamification for incentivizing drivers to earn rewards, and that they're somehow a terrible actor just by doing that, I think is a little bit misleading.

Now, in terms of some of the other statements, I think when you talk to young people who are incredibly career-focused and ambitious in that pursuit of landing a great job, especially those who come from more financially disadvantaged backgrounds, they just view it very differently from the way that Gardner has been describing it.I would just respectfully disagree with a lot of the statements that were just shared.

I think the one voice that's really missing from this conversation is that of a student whose family can't pay for college right now. I think if you had them on this podcast, what they would be sharing is that they don't have the ability to take on that level of debt, and ofttimes they think they do because they're going to get a loan from the government.

Instead, we have this sort of rose-tinted perception that college in the United States is this place where every single student achieves that acquisition of values and normative beliefs that are going to guide them throughout the rest of their lives. Whereas, a lot of students right now are just struggling to get into the courses that are going to get them through a major, because they think that that's their surest way to a job. And, at the end of that pathway, they're going to find out that employers actually don't even value the degree from the university that they attended, and now they're in a worse position than where they started.

Alexander: Just a very quick question for Adam. What proportion of the student body do you think is well suited for the MissionU experience, 10 percent, 90 percent?

Braun: The Parthenon Group did a really interesting study on motivations of students and the percentage that we believe applies to the type of program that we are building and would most benefit from it is about 18 percent—those are the subgroup that we call "career starters."

Campbell: I would simply say I'm sure that's a valuable target to go after. Your company's PR says a bachelor’s degree is "No longer makes sense for most people," and "most" would have to be a lot higher than that. What do you think we should do with the recent immigrants? What do you think we should do with the first-generation students, the ones who aren't career starters, but the ones who are trying to get, at bottom, some kind of a handle on what the world is and what their place in that world might be?

Braun: My hope is that MissionU is an individual data point, but that as it starts to scale and grow, it, hopefully, inspires others to build similar institutions and companies and organizations that use some of the parts of our model and scale those up, ultimately to broadly serve the masses that you're describing there. I think we need really, really large advocacy changes. In San Francisco, where I'm based, they've made community college free for local residents. We need major changes at the policy level that, hopefully, point to some of the innovations that are being tested.

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