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You Don’t Have to Go to College to Succeed. Really?

   /   May 16th, 2013Design, Education, National


By Ben Thurman

In 1997’s big hit, Good Will Hunting, Will Hunting scoffed, “You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library.”

Fifteen years on, this idea has taken root as people emerge to challenge the conventional wisdom that without a college degree, life will amount to failure.

The debate about the value of a college education is intensifying, with increasing numbers dissatisfied with their experience. The spectre of debt drives discontent.  In the last decade tuition fees rose by 42% and graduates can now expect to pay upwards of $100,000 for a four-year programme.

Rising fees have increased the level of expectation, and with growing numbers unable to secure a job at the end, the sum no longer appears a worthy investment. As degrees become increasingly ubiquitous and therefore less likely to guarantee a chosen career, college education appears less relevant and applicable to the real world.

As long as a degree guaranteed the security of a job and the skills needed to carry it out, the price was tolerable. But when half of college graduates under the age of 25 are either unemployed or doing a job that does not require a degree, people are beginning to question the value of college education and develop alternative solutions to the millennial generation’s demand for applicable skills and employability.

Attracting recent media attention, Enstitute is a new education incubation model that challenges the traditional college norm. Based in New York, it offers young people the chance to learn core skills through on-the-job experience.

In an interview with the Huffington Post in March, founder Kane Sarhan spoke of his motivation:

“I was seeing friends graduating from university with 60k in debt and not finding a job they could love.” Meanwhile, co-founder Shaila Ittycheria, working as a hiring manager, was coming across graduates who had “no problem-solving skills, no reasoning skills, and were totally useless in the workplace.”

The two developed a model that addressed both the disillusionment with college education among young ‘entrepreneurial types’ and the skills gap for hiring managers in vibrant tech start-ups. Enstitute places college-aged entrepreneurs for two years in New York’s hottest start-ups – among them are Thrillist, and Flavorpill – to learn practical, applicable skills under the apprenticeship of high-profile chief executives.

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Sarhan realized the gap between the classroom and the boardroom while still an undergraduate. His decision to take a job under the founder of a New York tech start-up proved a much more relevant learning experience; he hopes to offer young people the same opportunity and prove that, for the young digital elite, the top jobs do not require a degree. “Our long-term vision is that this becomes an acceptable alternative to college.”

He is not alone. Young people today have a widening pool of alternatives for ‘self-directed learning.’ The Thiel Fellowship offers a $100,000 grant to encourage the generation’s most exciting innovators to skip college and pursue their ideas; UnCollege runs programmes that provide mentorship and networks to Silicon Valley; and Minerva is delivering an Ivy League education exclusively online.

Dale Stephens, founder of UnCollege and author of Hacking Your Education, in a piece for the New York Times argued against the need for “a $150,000 piece of paper” when there are so many alternatives: online courses, interning, apprenticing.

“With a connection economy as powerful as ours,” he argues, “the real world is starting to give a greater return on investment than the manufactured [world] we set up in college.”

Alternative programmes are certainly more affordable. Enstitute currently charges $1,500 in tuition and fellows receive a small stipend. Dev Bootcamp – “an apprenticeship on steroids” – teaches programming, coding and other marketable skills in nine weeks.  With 90% employed after three months, the immediate return on the investment of $12,000 is much higher than most college degrees.

However, these programs by their own admission target the intelligent, ambitious, ‘entrepreneurial type.’ Currently, opportunities seem to be isolated to technology start-ups. While college is ‘not for everyone,’ technological entrepreneurship is surely for even fewer.

The companies affiliated with Enstitute are very happy with the first batch of fellows. Ben Lerer, co-founder of Thrillist describes his apprentice as “an awesome value at a nominal cost.” The eleven fellows from the first year will surely go on to achieve great things, having learned to develop mobile apps, code programs and prototype screen-based products.

But it is hard to imagine any of New York’s most dynamic entrepreneurs taking on anything less than the most brilliant young people. While this and other ‘real world’ opportunities for young people, such as UnCollege and the Thiel Fellowship, are only applicable for a tiny minority, it is unlikely that they will achieve the goal of disrupting the traditional college model.

Right now self-directed learning through online sources, such as those made available by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford, are not recognized in the same way as a college degree. Similarly, it remains to be seen whether employers will treat the graduates of Enstitute with scepticism when they enter the job market.

Hiring managers still place a premium on college degrees and often will not consider an applicant without one. However, the skills gap that was observed by Ittycheria remains. If college education continues to produce graduates that are “totally useless in the workplace,” employers may begin to consider candidates that have developed marketable skills through alternative, on-the-job experience.

Alternatives to college education remain largely unexplored, and they are currently the domain of a somewhat exceptional minority. However, as long as college fees continue to grow and job prospects look bleak, more young people look set to consider online and practical alternatives to college education. Indeed, as Benchmark Capital invests $25 million in Minerva, it is clear that Silicon Valley believes that attitudes towards higher education are about to change.

(Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons)

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