​We Don’t Need More Alternatives to College

column | PK-12 School Models

​We Don’t Need More Alternatives to College

By Amy Ahearn (Columnist)     Nov 22, 2017

​We Don’t Need More Alternatives to College

When MissionU emerged on the scene last year branding itself as an alternative to college, it ruffled feathers in higher education. The startup’s marketing pitch rightly pointed out that college debt was ballooning in the United States and that universities were failing to prepare the majority of Americans for the workforce.

MissionU is just the latest addition to a growing lineup of startups bypassing universities and building curriculum directly endorsed by employers, following in the footsteps of Udacity’s Nanodegrees, General Assembly, and bootcamps like Flatiron School. Even Coursera, which has historically partnered with universities, jumped on the employer bandwagon, announcing a new content partnership with Google this year.

Higher education leaders have taken note. Sean Gallagher wisely pointed out in a recent EdSurge column that “industry-based professional-learning” is taking off, necessitating that colleges and universities adapt. On both sides, there is a lot of “either/or” thinking: “Either we create new business models, or we will be disrupted by startups,” the university leaders say. “Either people attend our new programs or they risk being unprepared for real jobs,” the disruptive bootcamps say.

This is a false dichotomy. It doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition where students need to choose between traditional universities or upstart programs like bootcamps and nanodegrees. Rather, our best chance at building educational models that prepare students for the future is to combine the best of university learning with bursts of career-focused training.

Players like Triology Education are already working in this vein, helping universities embed bootcamp programming within their institutions. If this sounds like a recipe for longer, more expensive, and more bloated university programming that only the elite can afford, it doesn’t have to be.

Two education entrepreneurs on opposite sides of the globe are already pioneering new models specifically accessible to first-generation or low-income students. Aimee Eubanks Davis, the founder of Braven, and Benje Williams, the founder of Amal Academy, are building scalable education ventures that connect low-income youth to career-accelerating opportunities in the United States and Pakistan, respectively.

Importantly, neither Eubanks Davis nor Williams are positioning their programs as alternatives to college, but rather necessary supplements—particularly important for students who might not have access to the networks and informal skills accrued by their more privileged peers. As a recent New York Times Op-Ed pointed out, large public universities continue to be critical engines of economic opportunity and the American dream for low-income students. By supplementing these universities with new programs, thousands of students could be positively impacted within a semester.

Braven partners with institutions like Rutgers University-Newark and San Jose State to offer The Braven Accelerator, a course for first-generation college students typically taken during their sophomore or junior year. Formerly the head of talent for Teach for America, Eubanks Davis realized that, without the privilege of networks, the vast majority of the 1.2 million first-generation and low-income college enrollees each year will not emerge with a quality job.

To address this gap, she developed a blended training program offered for course credit on university campuses where students are grouped in cohorts and paired with coaches from nearby companies and explicitly taught the soft skills which can help them land what she calls “career accelerating” jobs. Seventy-two percent of Braven Fellows land a strong job after graduation, compared to a national average of 49 percent for African American and Latino students.

Halfway around the world in Lahore, Williams has launched a venture that aims to equip young Pakistanis with the soft skills they need to succeed in high-paying jobs. He saw that while many university graduates in Pakistan were passing their exams, many were not getting hired by the multinational corporations operating across Pakistan. That 5.3 million people were unemployed in a country where many corporate jobs remained unfilled frustrated him.

After pursuing an MBA at Stanford, Williams launched Amal Academy in 2014. The Academy offers a Career-Prep Fellowship, an intensive three-month business and leadership program that develops the soft business skills, values, and confidence of low-income youth. Their efforts currently focus on students from rural backgrounds who have left their families to study in Lahore.

To date, 1500 Fellows have graduated from Amal Academy and 85 percent have landed jobs. Now with a team of over 30 people, Amal Academy is laser-focused on the goal of reaching 10,000 fellows by the year 2020 and helping them secure employment.

Amal Academy and Braven have a few key things in common:

  • Supplements, not alternatives: Rather than being alternatives to college, they take existing university students and offer them more career-focused prep to round out their skills.
  • Blend online and in-person: They pair digital coursework with in-person sessions to keep costs low and leverage their in-person time for mentorship, project-based learning, and cohort-building.
  • Make the “hidden curriculum” of privilege visible: They pull back the curtain on privilege and emphasize the soft skills needed to succeed in industry. This comes from an awareness that career success is not just about technical skills like coding, but also about soft skills like how to mingle at networking events or reach out to professional contacts.

In effect, Williams and Eubanks Davis are embedding career prep within higher education, rather than creating a parallel industry. This notion of a “one-stop-shop” has long been the rage in healthcare innovation—with care providers pushing to offer patients a “medical home” or to provide “wraparound care.” The idea is to bring different service providers under one roof so that it’s easier for doctors to share information and easier for patients to navigate the system.

We should be doing the same in education. Instead of having colleges release students into a wild west where they have to opt to take on more job training via bootcamps just to land a high-quality job, it’s time to think about how we can blend our models, combining the best of university experiences with the best of bootcamps. There’s room for improvement and humility on both sides. Amal Academy and Braven are exciting templates for the types of innovative and inclusive programs that could emerge.

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