This One-Year Alternative to College Promises to Land Students a Well-Paying Job, Debt-Free

Adam Braun is launching MissionU, a program that cuts to the chase and disrupts the higher education industry

As students find income-share agreements appealing, the option could become more mainstream in higher education. (Burlingham/iStock)
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This fall, a couple dozen students will be the guinea pigs to test a new form of higher education. Without coughing up any tuition, they will enter MissionU, and a year later, with any luck, they will land jobs at Spotify, Warby Parker and other rising companies.

Here’s the deal: Once they land those well paying jobs, for the first three years, 15 percent of their salaries will go back to MissionU.

The school is the brainchild of Adam Braun, a 33-year-old entrepreneur and Brown University graduate who recognizes that a four-year college isn’t for everybody. His first venture in education, an organization called Pencils of Promise, has helped to build 400 schools in the developing world since 2008. MissionU, founded this year, started accepting applications last month.

Smithsonian.com spoke with Braun about the program's financial model, its curriculum and the ideal candidate.

Let’s start with the problem. What problem are you trying to fix?

We have a broken college system in the United States. In particular, there are two major issues that we’re facing. The first is that young people are leaving their undergraduate education without the skills necessary to land their first job nor to really thrive in their lives and careers going forward. Seventy-four percent [of students] feel that they are leaving university unprepared to enter the job market, and 50 percent of hiring managers think that today’s college grads lack the critical thinking skills necessary to really thrive or contribute at their company.

The second, even more troubling, is whether students obtain a degree or not they are leaving their undergraduate with insurmountable, crippling debt. I’m sure you’ve seen some of the national numbers. There are 31 million students with some college credit and no degree. So there is a tremendous amount of people that are entering college and not even obtaining a bachelor’s degree. For those that do get a bachelor’s degree, seven in ten have borrowed money, and the average student debt as of this year is over $37,000 with high interest rates as well.

Those two factors lead to the belief that we no longer should advocate for a one-size-fits-all model.

So what is MissionU?

MissionU is a one-year college alternative for the 21st century that prepares students for the jobs of today and tomorrow debt-free. We charge zero tuition. We believe that institutions should invest in their students, rather than vice versa, and that ultimately we should only be successful if our students are successful. When you get into MissionU we invest in you for that whole year, which enables any student from any background to be able to participate in our program, regardless of your socioeconomic background and your financial situation. Only once you are making $50,000 or more, once you have that job, you contribute 15 percent of your income back to MissionU for three years. That enables us to provide that opportunity to the next student. IAnd if you don’t reach that $50,000 threshold, then you don’t pay us anything. It really ties our well being to theirs.

Is there any model for this?

Purdue University has launched a large program that allows students to choose an income-share agreement rather than a traditional loan with high interest rates, because they see it as an appealing alternative. When students are actually educated on the two options, more than half the time they prefer the income-share agreement. This idea is becoming increasingly more mainstream.

Your wife's experience, in part, inspired you to found this college alternative.

My wife really bought into the idea that a top traditional college was the way to get ahead and do well in life. Instead, she ended up with over $100,000 in student debt and no bachelor’s degree after two and a half years and had to leave school due to financial hardship. What I saw was the crushing burden that that debt was putting on every aspect of her life, not just her financial well being but her emotional well being. Her sense of possibility about what she could attain in her life was really affected by how large her debt was and the notion that she would never be able to get out from under it. The more that I read into the statistics what I saw is that her situation was not a rare one. That really inspired me to go out and try to put together a world-class team of individuals and companies that believe that we need new alternatives.

Adam-Braun-headshot-pic-by-Nick-Onken.jpg
Adam Braun, founder and CEO of MissionU (Nick Onken)

How does it work exactly?

We have a skills- and career-focused curriculum. We start by partnering with employers. Our employer partners do two things. First, they advise us on curriculum, and the second is once we calibrate our curriculum to make sure that we are meeting the needs of these industry leading employers, that are indicative of the broader industry needs, we give them early hiring access to consider our top graduates. Right now, our employer partners are companies like Spotify, Lyft, Warby Parker, Uber, Casper, Harry’s, Birchbox and a whole bunch of others.

You are now taking applications for your first class, starting this fall. How many students are you accepting? And who is the ideal candidate?

Each cohort at MissionU is about 25 students. So we’ll be accepting 25 students into the fall cohort, but we have rolling cohorts that start every quarter. The way it works is all students live within 50 miles of their cohort city.

Our ideal student is what we define as a career starter. These are students ages 19 to 25 who view their higher education experience as a pathway to get a better job. They come from all parts of our society, all backgrounds. They are incredibly motivated. They are self-directed learners, and they are interested in landing a great job at a great company, and doing so without incurring a tremendous amount of financial debt.

It’s not your traditional college application either.

Our application process is designed to identify future potential rather than evaluate previous test scores. We don’t look at SATs, GPA or high school degrees. Instead, what we really look for is people’s problem solving abilities and their abilities to work effectively in teams to demonstrate soft skills that the world’s greatest companies all highly value.

There’s a four-step process. The first step just includes some basic information. Tell us about yourself. The second step is an admissions challenge where you can use the internet to research answers to tough problems. We want to see how well you do as a problem solver. The third step is a group challenge where you work in a small team to come up with a presentation and present to some of our admissions staff and work through a challenging problem that’s very similar to how you’d work on a team in a great company. The fourth step is an individual interview.

The first class will study data analytics and business intelligence. How did you make that decision?

We had hundreds of conversations with employers and hiring managers, and the roles we kept on hearing were in demand and really well paid  consistently were in this space of data analytics and business intelligence.

Turns out McKinsey did a very large study and demonstrated that by the year 2018 we’d have 1.5 million analysts and managers that lack the analytic skills necessary for the companies with which they work. There’s a tremendous amount of analyst jobs across many functions in companies that this will prepare people for, also a lot of business intelligence roles across many types of companies, data driven jobs, consulting type jobs as well. Those are the main buckets of jobs that we’re preparing people for. We’re targeting, on average, a $70,000 job.

What will the yearlong program look like?

Our first quarter is the foundational quarter. You learn eight hard skills. Those are things like business writing, public speaking, project management, excel gathering and basic tech foundation of html and css. These are eight hard skills we believe will make you an effective employee at any company, regardless of the industry.

The second quarter is called discovery, and that’s really about the process of personal discovery to understand where you want to point your compass in your life and career—doing the deep introspective work that enables you to understand how you want to position your future. The third quarter is basically a 12-week immersive sprint on your major. These are all project-based assignments, so you are working on real projects with your team.

Then the fourth quarter is similar to an internship in that you’re broken up into small teams and you work on real companies and real projects to build a public portfolio of work and have a robust resume by the time you finish the program. Then we have our graduation moment, but we don’t think that graduation should be at the very end of the year and that you should be sent on your way to find a job yourself. Instead, we reserve six weeks at the end our program for 'career launch.' Career launch is where we support you from interview preparation all the way through to salary negotiation.

On a monthly basis, the majority of your learning experience happens online, but not through pre-recorded lectures. These are live, virtual classrooms with you, your classmates and an industry practitioner. Then you come together once a month for what we call our meetups. These are at company campuses, college campuses or collaborative working spaces. That’s really to build the friendships and the bonds that we all have from college.

What types of majors will you offer in the future?

We plan to grow into many different cities and offer many different majors. I think there is a real interest in the health oriented space, a lot of professions in health sciences and health care that are in demand. Right now, we just don’t have enough well-trained and qualified people to take on these roles that are very fulfilling and well paid. So that’s an area of interest, personally. But we are going to continue to evaluate, and we will ultimately make the decisions based on where the industry needs are.

How will you convince employers to hire a MissionU grad over a student with a bachelor’s degree?

The one thing I can tell you is that employers value competency over credentials nowadays. In the last 18 months, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ernst & Young have removed the bachelor’s degree as a requirement to apply for jobs at their companies. They ran studies and could not prove that having a bachelor’s degree made you a more effective employer at their companies. Google has also removed the bachelor’s requirement, as well as Penguin Books. I think for any employer what they value most is not just a piece of paper but somebody who can demonstrate the skill set they are seeking.

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