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Are Venture-Backed College Alternatives a Brilliant Disruption—or a Sham?

Unaccredited programs like UnCollege and Make School are tempting students and terrifying parents.

 

Jessica Jiang giggles nervously, then sinks into silence, smoothing her long black hair into place in front of one shoulder. Three days after graduating from San Jose’s competitive Lynbrook High School, the self-described computer science nerd is contemplating her next challenge: sitting down with her father to persuade him that instead of moving into a Purdue University dorm this fall to pursue a BS, she should trek to San Francisco to learn coding at Make School, an unaccredited, venture-funded two-year “college-alternative.”

Both Jiang's parents, immigrants from China, hold advanced degrees in electrical engineering; her brother is aiming for a PhD. It hasn't been an easy sell, Jiang says, but her mother is coming around. "My dad is a little harder to convince," she adds, "because college was the reason he was able to come to America and have so many opportunities. For him, that I was not considering college was, like, terrifying.”

Jiang is relaxing on the leafy patio of her favorite hangout: a sprawling Palo Alto house that served as the dorm for Make School’s pilot class—11 high school and college graduates who have since worked at Pandora, Snapchat, and other tech companies. She doesn’t live here, but she took part in last year’s summer session, and she feels at home. Padding around in giant battered panda slippers, she banters with program graduates Masa Bando and Jordan Arnesen, peals of laughter interrupting the flow of technical terms. She loves it here.

Unlike Make School’s South of Market headquarters, which bring to mind a startup office, this house feels like it could be on a college campus. It’s as grubby and communal as a dormitory: empty water jugs lining the halls; a tower of food boxes stacked on the patio just outside the kitchen’s sliding glass doors. But despite the inviting summer evening, the residents remain inside, bent over computers at the desks scattered around the living room. It seems more like a co-op for honor students than a party house.

I’m here to learn why high-functioning students like Jiang are drawn to this and other nascent college-alternative programs—and to plumb my instinctive aversion to the concept: I feel strongly inclined to ship these kids off to a real campus with a bell tower and a grassy quad while they’re still young enough to enjoy it. Perhaps my discomfort stems from the fact that places like Make School and fellow college alternative UnCollege sell young people not just a different (quicker, cheaper) means of joining the workforce but a slickly packaged entrée into the tech industry itself. Maybe it’s the involvement of the likes of serial entrepreneur Tim Draper (a Make School investor) and libertarian ATM Peter Thiel. Or—just maybe—I’ve got it all wrong, and these programs are the opportunity of a lifetime for bright students like Jiang.

Make School’s youthful founders, Ashutosh Desai and Jeremy Rossmann, dropped out of UCLA and MIT, respectively, in 2011. Their startup, then called MakeGamesWithUs, was accepted by Mountain View’s legendary incubator Y Combinator. As much as anything, they are selling prospective students access to their world—a world where a teenager can secure a $50,000 investment over a game of Super Smash Bros. and then chill with C-level twentysomethings at a successful startup. When a group of prospective students visited one April weekend, Y Combinator was one of the first places Rossmann and Desai showed them. From there they drove three miles through techno-suburbia to a Make School hackathon at the Computer History Museum, where they met Apple legend Andy Hertzfeld and the chief technical officer of Lyft, Chris Lambert—who, no one missed, was in Desai and Rossmann’s Y Combinator class.

Like Make School’s Desai and Rossmann, UnCollege founder Dale Stephens holds a credential minted only in Silicon Valley: He was a Thiel Fellow—which means that he received $100,000 from the edu-skeptic billionaire to drop out of college and make something. That something ended up being UnCollege Gap Year: a for-profit, nine-month educational program, also unaccredited, intended for students who put off traditional college for a year, if not permanently.

UnCollege, like Make School, is peddling a portal to the San Francisco tech scene—with an escape from freshman lecture-hall fare as a perk. Its Gap Year workshops meet at Galvanize, a SoMa coworking education-and-startup space equipped with a lounge modeled on Dolores Park (although the coders sprawling on its fake grass are less likely to be guzzling PBR than sipping $4.50 V60 Sightglass pour-overs from the building’s street-level café). Students coding in the open work areas sometimes find themselves laboring side by side with employees of IBM or Google for Entrepreneurs.

Make School and UnCollege share key attributes with the burgeoning number of other upstarts focused on disrupting the centuries-old college education market: They incorporate work experience, they promise to mill youths into employable adults in less than four years, and they don’t make anyone read Jane Eyre. UnCollege’s Gap Year offers no field-specific training, instead focusing on “creation, curiosity, and self-advocacy.” (During one workshop I sat in on, the teacher broke social networking down into five steps, then turned the classroom into a faux cocktail party for banter practice.)

It’s not cheap, though. UnCollege “fellows” pay $16,000, which covers six months of meals and lodging. Make School, like a subprime mortgage of yore, requires no money down: It extracts its pound of flesh later, when it siphons 100 percent of students’ earnings from the internship portion of the program—and even later, when it collects 25 percent of their wages for two years after the program, a take that could total$30,000 to $40,000 per year of schooling. Given that costs for a typical nonprofit private college are in the same ballpark, students who are truly career-ready after only a year or two at a college alternative are saving a bundle. “Our long-term goal,” says Stephens, “is to create something that’s a quarter of the time and a tenth of the cost of a four-year university.”

 

An intense demand for postsecondary education coexists with emergent skepticism—especially in Silicon Valley—about whether a college education is worthwhile at today’s prices. And so, cue the disrupters: “We’re seeing an explosion of these alternatives,” says Anthony Carnevale, a former educational adviser to Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “It’s like the electronics market—everybody’s coming up with a scheme.” Only a third of a typical university student’s course load pertains to her major, Carnevale continues. “Entrepreneurs are stepping in and saying, ‘We’ll throw away the 67 percent and get you straight to the goal.’” College alternatives, he says, are the kind of thing that President Barack Obama was talking about when he called for all Americans to pursue at least a year of higher education or career training.

College-alternative “schemes,” as Carnevale describes them, are becoming an intriguing player in the national tussle over what postsecondary education should be. The college-for-all model is struggling: A shocking 41 percent of four-year college enrollees drop out with nothing tangible to show for their efforts but debt, at great cost to taxpayers and, often, their own prospects. The graduation rate at for-profit colleges is even more dismal: Only one in three enrollees graduates within six years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Vocational training is, of course, far from a new idea. A spread in a 1940 issue of Look magazine, titled “How Connecticut Is Solving Unemployment,” lauds a program that puts students in “real jobs”; the photograph depicts a young man, flannel sleeves rolled up, operating a lathe. But funneling high school graduates into trade schools and vocational programs fell out of favor in the United States in the ’70s and ’80s, when it became clear that the kids who ended up in them were usually female, minority, and/or low-income. That fact, compounded by concerns about high youth unemployment and American students’ academic unpreparedness, prompted multiple administrations to take whacks at the vocational system.

As it turned out, dismantling vocational training was the opposite of a good idea: In 2010, just after the recession, nearly one in five Americans under age 24 was unemployed; that figure has stabilized to a hardly stellar 12 percent. In Germany, on the other hand, where kids are separated into apprenticeship and college tracks in elementary school, youth unemployment is only 7 percent. “We all went to Europe, time and again, and what we saw was something that irrefutably worked,” Carnevale says. But when the government changed its tune and began pushing vocational training for youth, it ran into a surprise: Americans didn’t want it. “Basically, we decided that we’d throw away vocational training and home economics in high school,” says Carnevale, “and everybody would be on the same track. The college track.”

 

Now a cadre of venture-backed college alternatives are jumping that track, and so far their small group of young graduates have gotten jobs—good jobs. UnCollege reports that 24 of the 28 graduates from its first two Gap Year cohorts received job offers in their desired field. All 11 grads of Make School’s one-year pilot program were placed in paying gigs—two of them transitioning from Make School students to Make School employees, the rest working outside the roost. More than half of the Make School grads ended up with permanent full-time jobs, not just internships. At ages 18 to 29, they are allegedly earning between $60,000 and $120,000, sometimes with equity as well. (While these numbers haven’t been audited, the graduates to whom I spoke backed them up.)

There is a tang of irony in seeking a solution to a broken college system in for-profit college alternatives that aren’t held to any standard. But the more expensive that college gets—tuition rose 39 percent for public universities and 27 percent for private, nonprofit institutions between 2003 and 2013—the less crazy it seems to uncouple practical classes from the football team, the research lab, the chance encounter with your future spouse, and all the other trappings of a typical college experience. “The sad part is,” Stephens says, “that to do better than college, you don’t have to do that much.”

 

Donny Kuang is circulating through the room, offering encouragement and tips to hackathon participants. With his side-swept bangs and heavy black-framed glasses, the 24-year-old looks like the geek that the aspiring hackers hope to become. After three years at Cal Poly, he dropped out to join Make School’s inaugural class last fall. “The stuff I learned at Make School in a month,” he says, “outweighs what I learned in three years in college.”

After Kuang completed Make School’s classroom phase—during which he designed and built an iOS app for recording and note taking during lectures—the school connected him with entrepreneur Winston Wang, who was seeking an engineer for his stealth-mode startup. Wang, who points out that much of what he needs from an engineer isn’t taught in traditional computer science programs, clearly admires the efficacy of the Make School program. “It’s like trade education has come back,” he says. “But it’s totally transformed and a lot sexier, and seems a lot smarter now than just learning how to weld or fix a car.”

But at the same time, Wang, who holds degrees from Berkeley and Stanford, has concerns (like I do) that college-alternative kids are potentially missing out. He may hire more Make School grads, he says, but a college alternative is not necessarily what he’d want for his own child. “Later on in life,” he says, “you realize that you did lose something in that bargain.” It’s the same response that Carnevale got during the Clinton years when he polled voters on whether college is always the best route. “Everybody thought everyone didn’t need to go to college,” he recalls. “But everybody knew their kids needed to.” No matter how dysfunctional the system gets, sending your kid to college remains a central tenet of the American Dream.

That’s why Desai often reminds nervous parents that college-alternative students can always go to “real” college afterward (although the programs currently do not provide transferable credits). And some kids do, in fact, reverse course: As Masa Bando, who deferred MIT in order to attend Make School, quips, “‘MIT dropout’ has a better ring than ‘high school graduate.’” He’s now headed to Cambridge for “a semester or two.”

But that’s a decision that Jiang won’t have to make. Her parents put the kibosh on her Make School dreams, choosing instead to send her to a traditional four-year program at Purdue. “My family wants me to experience college first,” she texts, punctuating her message with an unhappy emoticon: :/

 

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco

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