This One-Year College Alternative Offers Real World Job Training, Debt-Free
This episode is part of an EdTech Times series called “Challenges and Solutions for Student Financial Aid & Debt.”
What if there was a way to get the benefits of a college degree without going into debt or paying tuition up-front?
One college alternative could provide just that.
MissionU is a college alternative that doesn’t require students to pay tuition until after they get a job — and not just any job, but a job that pays over $50,000 a year.
But this is just the beginning. Listen to our full interview with MissionU founder Adam Braun to find out how else MissionU is different from the typical college education.
Hannah Nyren: So to start off, tell us a little bit about MissionU and what it does.
Adam Braun: MissionU is a one-year college alternative for the 21st century, that really aims to prepare students for the jobs of today and tomorrow, debt-free.
Hannah Nyren: Great. So why did you start MissionU?
Adam Braun: So MissionU really was born out of a desire to rectify what I saw happen to my wife. She grew up in a very loving family. But, you know, they immigrated to this country and she was nine, they didn’t have a lot of financial means. And she really bought into a traditional college path as the way out of, you know, the current financial situation into a much better one.
Adam Braun: And she ended up with over $100,000 of student debt, in just about two and a half years, without actually attaining a bachelor’s degree.
Adam Braun: She’s one of 31 million Americans who have some credit without getting a bachelor’s degree. And the more I learned about her situation, the more I recognized as an employer that I had never once looked at somebody’s college transcripts. Where they went to college was a helpful sorting mechanism, but whether they completed or not actually didn’t matter at all to me.
Adam Braun: I spent the last decade or so of my life focused on global education, in particular in the developing world, by founding Pencils of Promise, which is now built in more than 400 schools across the developing world. I spent a lot of time in college campuses growing Pencils of Promise and we had always this tremendous grassroots support from college students. The book that I wrote, The Promise of a Pencil, which is subtitled “How an ordinary person can create extraordinary change,” has been used by a lot of colleges as the common freshman read.
Adam Braun: And so, I go to a lot of colleges throughout the year, and I just keep hearing this question about, is there anything you could do for our education system here at home?
Adam Braun: The more people I spoke to, the more I heard that. And I just, you know, kind of came to the recognition that we needed new solutions for a new generation of students.
Hannah Nyren: Right. Plenty of students either don’t graduate, and have a ton of debt, or graduate, have a ton of debt, and still don’t get a job where they use their degree.
Adam Braun: Right.
Hannah Nyren: To boil it all down — What specific problem are you trying to solve with MissionU?
Adam Braun: Sure. So MissionU really seeks to solve two problems. The first is that whether students even get a degree or not, they’re leaving school with insurmountable crippling debt. The second issue that we really seek to solve is that those who do or do not get a degree, regardless of whether they attain a degree, they oftentimes come out of college without the necessary skills that employers are really seeking out of new hires.
Adam Braun: You know, 91 percent of freshmen say that they go to college to get a better job. But colleges aren’t actually doing a very good job of preparing students to enter the workforce.
Adam Braun: And so we’re really focused on creating a debt-free pathway for students, by not charging any tuition at all upfront, and instead structuring an income-share agreement between ourself and our students, such that if and only if they’re successful, we receive a percentage of their compensation for just three years.
Hannah Nyren: So, how specifically is what you’re doing different than traditional higher ed?
Adam Braun: I don’t think there’s really anyone who’s doing something exactly like MissionU is.
Adam Braun: So there’s probably a couple differences. And, you know, maybe I can speak towards the two things we’re really trying to solve. The first is, you know, students leaving with insurmountable crippling debt and the second is that that lack of skills that employers really value.
Adam Braun: So the first part is, we’re a shorter experience, we’re one year, rather than the four to six years that it takes to get a bachelor’s degree. The second part, is that we actually charge no tuition at all upfront. We think it’s really really important that institutions align with students on their outcomes. And when 91 percent of freshmen say that they go to college to get a better job, we actually want to serve that market by helping them get a better job. And we don’t think that we should be rewarded unless they achieve that goal.
Adam Braun: And so we charge no tuition at all upfront and instead, only once the student has secured a job paying them $50,000 or more, we receive 15 percent of income for three years. And then they’re done, and that also allows us obviously to enable that students.
Adam Braun: And then probably the third major difference, besides the actual delivery model, which I can go into in more detail, is that when we’re crafting the curriculum, we actually start with employers from the very beginning. So we developed what we call a series of employer partners. These are companies that advise us on curriculum.
Hannah Nyren: OK.
Adam Braun: And then we encourage our students to apply for open roles at their company. And they get early preferred access to our top graduates for hiring. And right now, these are companies like Spotify, Lyft, Uber, Warby Parker, Harry’s, Casper, Birchbox, Bonobos, a whole bunch of others. And so they’re really, you know, leading companies that almost any millennial that I speak to would do anything to work at. And this is who we’re partnering with to really be thoughtful about the curriculum that we’re building, so that it really meets the needs of industry today and helps students with that on-ramp to a great job.
Hannah Nyren: I was going to say good choice picking hip, millennial-targeted companies to partner with.
Adam Braun: Yeah. I mean, you know, we spend a lot of time speaking to students and said, where’s your dream job? You know, what’s the company that you would most want to work for? And then we went to those companies, and…you know, fortunately I had a lot of close relationships with a lot of their founders and CEOs over the years, because many of them had actually, you know, had become friends, close friends. And you know in conversation even before MissionU existed, so many of them were lamenting the fact that they couldn’t find the type of talent that they needed coming out of college. And yet at the same time, a lot of them had personal debt. You know, their spouses had debt. And I think everyone kind of collectively recognized that we have we have a challenge right now with our higher education system and they were really excited about a new institution that could go out and really solve that.
Hannah Nyren: We do, yeah. That’s really interesting. And they must trust a lot in your system.
Adam Braun: Yeah. Obviously, they, you know, help kind of co-create in some way, the type of curriculum that we’re crafting, because they’re giving us a tremendous amount of advice, we’re actually building case studies around a lot of these companies, so that students are working on real issues that these companies have faced. And I think it’s an exciting new way to think about developing curriculum with your students’ goals in mind.
Hannah Nyren: That is so true. So, how long did you work on developing this curriculum?
Adam Braun: You know it’s been in development for several years now. But we didn’t want to come out and say, hey we’re going to do this thing. We wanted to come out and say, this thing now exists. You know, it’s open for admission. You can enroll now with, you know, the opportunity to join our upcoming cohort, or cohorts. And so you know, I would say it’s been in development for about two to three years now.
Adam Braun: You know my co-founder, Mike Adams, previously was a co-founder at Degreed and then went and ran outcomes at Hack-reactor, which is, you know, essentially the Harvard of the bootcamp world, the highest-outcome coding bootcamp. And we don’t teach coding, that’s not our focus. But, you know, he has a really, really just incredible talent, I would say, and set of experience around, not only technology for education at scale, but perhaps more importantly, for curricular development.
Adam Braun: And so, I spoke to a ton of academics at different institutions over the last two to three years, as has Mike, to really help us think about the scaffolding and the architecture of the actual year-long program. But, you know, we spent the majority of our time when thinking about the actual content that’s going to populate this year-long process more so on the industry side.
Hannah Nyren: Interesting. So how do you plan to assess the students and prove their skill sets?
Adam Braun: Sure. So, you know, we…at the current state are a non-accredited institution, right? That said, I mean, since we’ve launched literally less…about a month or so ago. We’ve had 4-5 different colleges already reach out just to explore partnerships. And it’s not something we’re adverse to at all. I mean, if someone’s listening to this and saying, wow is this something that could be really beneficial as a partnership at my university, I would just email hello [at] MissionU [dot] com, it comes to our full team, and then the appropriate person can follow up.
Adam Braun: Our big belief is that the single most important credential in the 21st century job market is your most recent job. Right? And in particular for young people, it’s their first job. You know, that kind of creates a marker for any future employer around that person. Much like the, you know, kind of mental sorting mechanism of, where do they get into college out of high school? Or if they even went to college out of high school. And so, our entire year is really structured around ensuring that they are going to gain a series of industry certifications. So we really believe that there’s value in certifications related to specific tools.
Adam Braun: We also believe in the experience that you can actually put on your resume and a public portfolio — work that demonstrates competency in a certain area. And so actually, the fourth quarter of our year is one in which students essentially have, much like an internship. They’re broken up into small teams, they work as agencies for real companies, and they develop a public portfolio of work that demonstrates competency in the area where they will ultimately be, you know, trying to secure jobs.
Adam Braun: And our first major is data analytics and business intelligence—just this rapidly growing industry. You know, huge amount of unfilled jobs. They pay very well. And in particular, it’s a space where competency is more valued than credential.
Adam Braun: And very few colleges are..teaching the specific competencies necessary.
Hannah Nyren: data analytics is a solid choice, because you can really prove that someone is competent in that field pretty easily.
Adam Braun: You know if you have a say an econ major, even from an elite college, that’s very different from when an employer says, “Build an Excel model for me.” Or use SQL, the query database, whether you can actually do that.
Hannah Nyren: Ha. Exactly.
Adam Braun: I mean I went to Brown, which is a great school and I absolutely love my university. But, when I went up against any candidate who had actually had real experience in some of the kind of core skills that employers were looking for in the industries that I was seeking, I couldn’t hold a candle to them. And there was really only Wharton, was probably the only other undergraduate program that was actually out there training students on these specific skills. So you know, it’s now kind of incumbent on the employer to spend all this time and money on training for employees once they start.
Adam Braun: And we believe that we can essentially, you know, deliver to great companies great employees by training them before they even have to walk in the door.
Hannah Nyren: Right. So, you have set that goal that you only make money if the students make over $50,000 a year, and they pay back 15 percent after they have graduated from your program. So is there a reason for this specific amount, and how long do you think it will take students to get to that amount? Is the goal to have them immediately graduate and make that amount of money, or is there a three-year plan?
Adam Braun: We set that kind of 50K threshold, just after looking at the industries that we were targeting, what we thought was certainly a feasible job. Also, you know what would kind of enable a student to be able to, if they wanted to, pursue a different—you know, call it shorter-term opportunity—where we just ultimately didn’t think it was in their best interest or ours as a, you know, organization kind of venture, to be collecting on a student when they weren’t exceeding a certain threshold and 50K was really the product of a lot of kind of market research and conversations with parents, students, and employers.
Adam Braun: You know our real goal is a $70,000 job. That’s the target for our students, is we want to get them 70k jobs. And the goal is to get there immediately after completing the program. There is, you know, built into their income-share agreement the opportunity for deferment. So if they’re making less than $50,000, again we don’t collect and you know, they don’t pay during that period. And that counts towards what is ultimately up to 48 months of deferment.
Adam Braun: So let’s say they choose to go back to school for a period of time, then the income share agreement is deferred. If they want to teach at a low-income school in an urban city for a while, they want to go travel, whatever it might be. But, you know, we’re really screening our admissions process, which doesn’t look at SAT, doesn’t look at GPA, doesn’t look at high school degree or not.
Adam Braun: What we really value is not as a test score and kind of standardized test taking ability, but much more so about future potential, and character traits, and soft skills.
Adam Braun: You know we’re really looking for people that are in situations where they’re eager to build a really successful and meaningful career. And for that type of student that we define as a career starter, we anticipate having them go through a year-long program and then immediately enter the workforce making, you know, $50,000 or more.
Hannah Nyren: That’s great. So I have a million questions that I want to ask based on that, but I’m going to try to keep it short.
Hannah Nyren: So $50,000 a year or $70,000 a year, are not necessarily the average starting salary. I know you’re starting with data analytics. What fields are you getting into after that?
Adam Braun: So right now, just in general, as an entrepreneur, I’m a big believer in the value of focus, and to not try and take on new things until you’ve really mastered one core domain. And so, our focus at least for the next year, is going to be exclusively on data analytics and business intelligence. That’s the current major. We’re really not trying to stray far from that. But when we think about scale, we certainly will be adding new majors.
Adam Braun: And you know, I can tell you, there’s kind of two spaces that I’m personally pretty interested in. I think the first one is around the health space and in particular, probably nursing.
Adam Braun: Nursing is a very meaningful career. It’s very well compensated, and it’s you know one of the largest shortages of labor in the country in the coming 5-10 years. Especially as we have an aging baby boomer population. They not only needs to carry themselves but right now is the majority or a large force of the current nurses and they are going to be retiring.
Adam Braun: And then I think the second area that we will continue to be interested in is going to these 21st century digital economy roles like product management or digital marketing.
Adam Braun: So we’ll continue to really explore and be incredibly diligent about which industry we go into next. But those are probably the two that I’m most fascinated by at the moment.
Hannah Nyren: Yeah. That makes sense. Logically, based on statistics. So how sustainable do you think your model is? What happens if for some reason you can’t get students to make $50,000 a year? Is there another business model? Is there a backup business model. Are there any other tracks that you might go on to make money and to create revenue for your business?
Adam Braun: I would say if we’re not able to take a student through a year long process and ultimately deliver a significant transformation that leads to meaningful gains in employment opportunities for that student, then honestly, we probably aren’t the right fit to be working in this space. Right now, I see all these colleges that I think are doing a lot more harm than good and they’re still around because of this desire for institutional preservation. And the reality is they should be out of business because they’re hurting more people than they’re helping. And so maybe there is a path in which we end up not being particularly successful in this one specific area and we find. Oh my gosh. We’re going to be tremendously beneficial to students in a different area. And if that’s the case then we would continue down that path. But you know I would never have any interest in leading a company or an organization that wasn’t having an outsized positive impact on the world. And right now we believe really deeply in the opportunity right in front of us. And you know our core focus for the foreseeable future is really nothing but that.
Hannah Nyren: Yeah. I think you have a great point.
Hannah Nyren: Well, thank you for speaking with me today Adam. I’m really interested to learn more about MissionU and I’m going to keep track of you guys as you grow. Because I know this is new, and you have a great idea that could help solve a really big problem in education today. And I wish you the best. I hope it works.
Adam Braun: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
This podcast episode is sponsored by Inversant, a Boston-based nonprofit that helps lower- to middle-income families plan and save for college.
If you would like to donate to Inversant,visit Inversant.org/donate.
To learn more about how Inversant can help you prepare for your child’s future, visit inversant.org/educationlibrary.
Listen to the full series, “Challenges and Solutions for Student Financial Aid & Debt.”
Hannah Nyren is the General Manager of EdTech Times. A Texan by birth but a Bostonian at heart, Hannah is an educational writer, AmeriCorps alum, and one-time StartupWeekend EDU (SWEDU) winning team member. She started her career at a Pearson-incubated edtech startup, but has since covered travel, food & culture, and even stonemasonry in addition to education.