What a Reinvented College Looks Like: 5 Alternative Higher-Ed Models

Digital Learning

What a Reinvented College Looks Like: 5 Alternative Higher-Ed Models

By Jeffrey R. Young     Jul 10, 2017

What a Reinvented College Looks Like: 5 Alternative Higher-Ed Models

Updated April 12, 2018 with new model (at the end of article).

It has become increasingly popular to say that higher education needs to go back to the drawing board—that the best way to improve college is to start new campuses from scratch or radically reinvent old ones.

But it’s one thing to muse about a new kind of college over drinks with colleagues, and another to break ground on a digital-age campus quad. A handful of efforts attempt to turn their visions into reality, and they aren’t just making small tweaks: Some of these new colleges don’t have physical classrooms. Some are free (or free at first).

Below is a quick look at five campuses that offer a new model of the undergraduate college experience. Most assume that students don’t care about specific academic disciplines, or about honoring “tradition” when it comes to education. Not everyone thinks they’re a good idea, and some may not even consider the projects on this list as colleges at all. We’ve noted key critiques of each model as well, and if you think we left some efforts or opinions out, feel free to share your own in the comments section.


Elevator pitch: A highly-selective college that wants to be an Ivy League-equivalent for the digital age.

What’s different: There are no physical classrooms, and all classes are held by synchronous video. Students all live in the same city and have some face-to-face experiences, while professors beam in from all over the world.

Founding narrative: While the founder, Ben Nelson, was an undergrad at an Ivy League college (U Penn), he became frustrated with traditional higher education and wrote a long paper envisioning a new kind of curriculum. After years in business, including serving as CEO of the photo-sharing service Snapfish, he decided to dust off that proposal, update it for the latest technology, and create a university he hopes will encourage traditional elite colleges to change how they operate.

Tax status: Hybrid of for-profit and non-profit. A venture-backed for-profit called the Minerva Project created the college’s curriculum and software, and has raised $70-million. The university itself is a non-profit offshoot, called Minerva Schools, and its leaders fast-tracked the traditional accreditation system by partnering with an existing institution that had accreditation—Keck Graduate Institute—though officials say their program was given a separate review in fall 2014 by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

Where it stands: The school opened three years ago, and there are 158 students in the class now finishing its freshman year. The plan is to eventually scale up.

What critics say: Students are definitely taking a leap of faith that the upstart will be viewed favorably by employers. And traditional professors worry about a lack of traditional elements of a core curriculum and extracurriculars. As one professor at Pomona College, John Seery, wrote in a Huffington Post article, Nelson first approached Pomona about the partnership, but faculty there turned down the idea after some study. Some Pomona professors, Seery says, were “incensed at the claim that Minerva could provide the functional substitute for a liberal arts education: for instance, an online format can provide no hands-on laboratory science, no productive or performative or group-based art, music, or theatre courses, no physical education or recreational sport, no face-to-face foreign language instruction, no internships, no student government, no organized extracurricular activities, and not much of anything beyond screen time.”

Further reading: Three Years In, Minerva’s Founder On For-Profits, Selectivity, and His Critics

Mission U

Elevator pitch: A one-year program designed to help students land high-tech careers (and serve as a substitute for going to a four-year college) without traditional student debt (relying on an income-share agreement instead of tuition).

What’s different: The effort is career-focused, and a list of high-tech companies have signed on as advisors to help shape the curriculum and say they will consider its grads for jobs. Students pay nothing upfront to attend, but agree to pay 15 percent of their incomes for three years once they land a job that pays $50,000 or more. To condense the program to just one calendar year, it skips Shakespeare or any traditional liberal-arts electives, with the idea that students can pick that up later (through MOOCs or continuing education) once they have a job.

Founding narrative: Adam Braun, a 33-year-old entrepreneur best known for his work building schools in developing countries, was inspired to start the effort after seeing his girlfriend struggle with student-loan debt.

Tax status: The effort is for-profit and has raised about $3-million in seed funding from venture capitalists.

Where it stands: The effort was just announced in March and is accepting applications for its first class.

What critics say: Many in traditional higher education don’t buy that it can replace college, and instead call it a career-training program. The concern is that it will waste students’ time (and end up costing them quite a bit down the road) and only prepare them for their first job, rather than give them a broad education that will help them grow over time. “This seems to be an employment service and on-the job training, at the employee’s expense,” said Gardner Campbell, an associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, in an interview with EdSurge earlier this year.

Further reading: MissionU Says It Can Replace Traditional College With a One-Year Program

New Research University By a Former MIT Dean

Elevator pitch: Some are calling this MIT 2.0 (the institution doesn’t have a name yet). The goal is to create a major research university from scratch, but one that breaks down traditional disciplinary barriers and focuses more on experiential and project-based learning.

What’s different: The campus will have no classrooms and no lectures. Instead, there will be large open spaces for laboratories, and areas designed for students to work in groups. The core of the curriculum will be long-term student projects. There will be no academic departments, and instead every professor will be transdisciplinary.

Founding narrative: The founder, Christine Ortiz, is a traditional academic who was a professor at MIT for 17 years. She says she has long been interested in the future of the research university and felt that pedagogical experiments and disciplinary-boundary breaking found at MIT’s Media Lab and other innovative institutions could be tried on a larger scale.

Tax status: The institution will be non-profit, and seek traditional accreditation. It is looking to raise money from supporters and foundations.

Where it stands: Ortiz announced the effort in early 2016, and is apparently still doing fundraising and planning. She has said she wants it to eventually grow at least as large as MIT.

What critics say: Many colleagues were surprised by Ortiz’s decision to walk away from MIT and essentially start a competitor. Some have complained about a lack of specifics and wondered whether Ortiz can raise the large amounts necessary for such an ambitious undertaking. Some also argue that the proposed institution may largely serve well-off students and do little to address more urgent accessibility issues in higher education.

Further reading: MIT Dean Takes Leave to Start New University Without Lectures or Classrooms

Paul Quinn’s New Urban College Model

Elevator pitch: A private, historically black college is transforming itself into the first “work college” in an urban setting, focusing on connecting students with internship and campus jobs to keep student costs low and prepare students for jobs and leadership.

What’s different: The college, in Dallas, Texas, had been a traditional residential campus, but was facing declining enrollment and struggling financially, so it decided to try a radical new approach in hopes of becoming one of the nation’s great small colleges. The college is moving away from textbooks to free open-source online materials. It stresses that students should be entrepreneurial. The football team was eliminated and the field turned into an urban farm. It adopted a “work college” model, meaning every student, regardless of financial need, works as part of their college experience, and it is the only US work college in an urban setting. Steps were taken to lower tuition and use the required work to offset the cost of attendance (80 to 90 percent of the college’s students are eligible for Pell grants).

Founding narrative: Michael Sorrell was a successful lawyer working to buy an NBA team when he was offered the job of transforming Paul Quinn College. He has been an outspoken spokesman for issues of college access and promoting his model (below is a recent talk he gave at ASU+GSV Summit this year), and he takes a personal approach with coaching students.

Tax status: Non-profit, accredited college.

Where it stands: The college announced its New Urban College Model in February of 2015.

What critics say: It’s tough to find critics of this plan to turn around a college that was on the brink of collapse. A profile of Sorrell in The New York Times credit him with turning the institution around and making a difference in students’ lives.

Further reading: Paul Quinn Becomes First Historically Black College to be Designated a ‘Work College’

Wayfinding Academy Flips the Script on Two-Year Nonprofit Approach

Elevator pitch: Most campuses stress academics, then provide students with activities and guidance to figure out what they want to do with their lives.

What’s different: The big idea is to address a pervasive problem in American higher education. Though two-year colleges are enrolling a more diverse mix of students than ever before, about 43 percent end up dropping out before finishing their degree. Most of the students at Wayfinding have tried college before and didn’t fully buy into why they were there, or see how taking required classes would help them. The goal of Wayfinding Academy is to give students greater control and guidance so they’re more driven to reach the finish line.

Founding narrative: A 41-year old college business professor started the experimental college out of her frustration with what she calls “corruption” in the traditional structures of higher education that keeps institutions from actually doing the lofty things they claim to do for students. “My role as a faculty member was more about sorting and grading and checking boxes than it was about helping students find out who they wanted to be,” she argues.

Tax status: Non-profit, seeking traditional accreditation.

Where it stands: The college is expected to graduate its first class of students (eight of them) in 2018.

What critics say: Not everybody thinks this new institution is needed. After all, plenty of traditional community colleges are experimenting with so-called Guided Pathways programs that have similar goals of helping students choose their major and stay on track. Forging a whole new college brings plenty of new challenges, and forces students to take a gamble on an unproven educational entity with no name recognition. And Jones admits that guidance counselors at high schools she’s approached have been reluctant to recommend the unusual college with no accreditation.

Further reading: This New 2-Year College Is Unlike Any Other. And That Could Be Its Biggest Challenge.

Correction note: This article originally stated that Minerva had no accreditation review, but officials say its program did receive one.

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