MissionU, the one-year alternative to college which promised to “give you the skills and experience needed to launch a successful career,” is closing after admitting just a single cohort of 25 students.
The program’s rapid demise offers lessons about the hubris, naivete, and challenges which sometimes accompany aggressive education startups.
Based in San Francisco and founded in 2016 by Adam Braun, MissionU imagined itself as a “modern take on higher education that delivers a uniquely immersive, collaborative, and efficient learning experience,” according to its website.
Its year-long curriculum was organized around one trimester each of “Foundation” (preparation in essential skills), “Specialization” (via small team projects), and “Work Experience” (with corporate partners). MissionU’s classes were delivered online in real-time, combined with “biweekly meetups to strengthen teamwork and grow your community.”
MissionU advertised that there were no upfront tution costs. Instead, as with many other alt-college startups, students agreed to income sharing agreemeents, where they paid a percentage of their early-career income back to the school.
But all of this has rapidly come to an end now that Braun has been hired to serve as COO of a subdivision of WeWork, which offers shared workspaces and organizes instructional communities. WeWork’s announcement includes a passing remark that the company will adopt MissionU’s technology to help “fuel our systems,” but it appears MissionU has essentially folded.
At Degree or Not Degree, we wholeheartedly support innovators in higher education, and we respect all who try to improve on the many failings in our systems. However, as students and families consider whether to participate in non-traditional educational paths, we offer these questions to help assess the merits of any particular programs.
>How arrogant is the vision?
Yes, higher education has a lot of problems, but let’s remember we’re dealing with centuries-old institutions filled with very smart people and immense institutional knowledge. When startup founders make headline-grabbing statements such as “College is dead,” they display a lack of wisdom and a potentially fatal arrogance.
In Braun’s case, in a representative interview, he hyperbolically said, “The current college landscape is fundamentally broken,” and then made an even more concerning claim as he discussed MissionU’s admissions:
“We don’t look at SAT, we don’t look at GPA, and you don’t have to have a high school degree to get into MissionU, because none of those things actually matter or are clear indicators of whether somebody’s going to be a great contributor to a great company.”
That type of assertion might get good attention for a podcast, but it’s simply not true. It’s also not true that “the value of a traditional degree is plummeting,” as stated on MissionU’s website.
Meanwhile, in the “Our Promise” section of its website, MissionU said it would offer a “world-class” education. That’s an unrealistic commitment for a new, mostly online, one-year program. Leave the world-class education to Oxford and Sorbonne.
>Are there experienced academics on staff?
We’ve observed a trend where Silicon Valley entrepreneurs consider themselves qualified to rethink and disrupt education. Perhaps they are and should, but history indicates the best innovations within a given industry are led by experts within that industry.
The depth of MissionU’s academic qualifications is unclear. Braun has an admirable background as founder of Pencils of Promise, which creates elementary schools in remote and impoverished areas throughout the world. Also, MissionU’s website touts the guidance of “experts at leading universities,” including Harvard, Stanford, and MIT–but it appears none of these advisors was involved in daily instruction.
>What’s the justification for condensed timelines?
Instructional programs based on income sharing agreements have the incentive to get their students into the workforce quickly. Otherwise, the income-based repayment model slows down and delays the startup’s cash flow.
Meanwhile, impatient potential students may find one- or two-year programs appealing as they assess debt and income scenarios and career timelines. It’s also possible that income sharing agreements motivate the provider to ensure good career placement for graduates.
With respect to the actual education and preparation of students, though, how does a school justify such accelerated timeframes? Are there any clear signs or reasons why a particular vendor can prepare students in one year when most schools require four or more?
Students who consider non-traditional programs must reflect on their personal career goals and the realistic deliverables of condensed offerings. Granted, there may be slack and inefficiencies within traditional four-year programs, but no one should expect an equivalent outcome from a year’s worth of online (or hybrid) coursework.
>Are the corporate partnerships well-established?
Many alternative education programs advertise their partnerships with talent-hungry companies. Vendors claim students will enjoy portfolio-generating work experiences as they engage in real-world projects with these companies.
But don’t be surprised if education vendors play fast and loose with their claims of corporate partnerships. These vendors’ websites typically tout arrangements with Google, Uber, and the like, usually in a Partners section filled with colorful and impressive logos. Note, however, that these partnerships can be tenuously established–perhaps via a noncommital conversation with an HR department, or based on a single student’s intern experience.
MissionU’s website has one of these typical partner sections but offers no details or examples of how students can engage with those companies. Presumably, with its history of only a single student cohort, it was too early for the school to cite any proven, successful experiences.
>How detailed is the curriculum?
As companies such as MissionU advertise their immersive corporate experiences, they may simultaneously be signaling an underdeveloped instructional curriculum. In other words, hyping project-based learning could be another way of saying, “We’re not equipped to teach much.”
To its credit, and unlike some of its peers, MissionU did create a 16-page course catalog for its first year. Note, however, the vague and overly ambitious list of topics for the first trimester of study (“T1”):
A note on innovation
In his new book “The Flight of a Butterfly or the Path of a Bullet?” education expert (and Stanford Professor Emeritus) Larry Cuban considers how educational transformation occurs, and over what timeframe. He concludes that changes usually compound slowly and randomly, as many smaller, separate developments gradually combine to transform large systems over time. Innovation, then, typically follows the slow and unpredictable path of a butterfly’s flight, rather than a sudden, rapid gunshot of change.
Presently, especially in Silicon Valley, some entrepreneurs are trying to follow the path of a bullet as they challenge traditional institutions of higher ed. Their spirit of innovation and experimentation is commendable–but MissionU’s bullet went astray. Students should proceed with caution when considering similar offerings.