Skyrocketing tuitions. Degree inflation. Politicized curriculums. Lowered job expectations upon graduation. Higher education in America is tangled with problems to such a degree that many have started to ask the question: is getting a traditional college education still worth it? So far, most people seem to think so, given enrollment numbers that remain relatively high.
Yet, not all do; some schools are starting to see signs of softening demand. The academic marketplace is attracting entrepreneurs looking to capitalize on the emerging market of young people and their parents who may consider alternatives before committing large sums of money for programs that might not be right for them.
Exactly which innovations—and how many—will survive to become a permanent part of the higher education landscape is impossible to predict. The entrepreneurial higher education “gold rush” may still be in its infancy, and, until now, most have been online ventures that still closely resemble traditional higher education, either granting full degrees or providing traditional-style courses and lectures.
But now some entrepreneurs are taking innovation in higher education outside the traditional box altogether. One such initiative based on an entirely new concept is called “Praxis,” a low-cost, for-profit alternative to traditional education.
Neither a college nor an apprenticeship, it offers a 10-month program for 18- to 25-year-olds who do not want, or cannot afford, a traditional higher education. It instead combines real-world experience with online education. The essential part of the program places students with entrepreneurial-oriented businesses, where they will work for 30 to 40 hours a week. The work will be paid and will roughly cover the $12,000 fee charged for participating in Praxis; the only cost to students will be living expenses for 10 months.
But Praxis “students” will not merely be clerical workers: No more than 50 percent of the students’ working time will be spent performing routine administrative tasks; they will undertake at least one “self-directed” project; and will “shadow” the owner or founder of the company for at least two full days during their time with the company.
A critical part of the progam is a formal academic component that will take roughly 10 hours per week. For the first six months of the program, the curriculum consists of six “modules” of online lectures and reading. Each module lasts roughly one month, or 40 study hours, although students can proceed at their own pace. When a student finishes a module, he or she will be orally tested on his or her understanding of the material via video-conferencing. The six modules are:
- Philosophy, Logic, and Ethics;
- History & Culture
- Technology and Digital Skills
- Entrepreneurship and Life Skills
Upon completion of all six modules, students must conceive of and complete a “Portfolio Project,” which is essentially an independent study project. The final couple of months of education focus on explicit preparation for the labor force, featuring instruction and practice on interviewing for jobs.
Praxis is the brainchild of Isaac Morehouse, who does not fit the mold of most higher education entrepreneurs. Often they come from the ranks of academia, or became rich through other, non-education Internet ventures.
But Morehouse has an eclectic background, with much of it spent as a conservative activist. He recently quit his job as a fundraiser for the Institute for Humane Studies, a free-market center associated with George Mason University, to concentrate full-time on Praxis. Previously, he directed educational programs and policy programs, mentored students, created Students for a Free Economy while working at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, worked at the Michigan House of Representatives, was involved in a small business startup, founded an international humanitarian nonprofit, and ran a local taxpayer advocacy group.
Morehouse says that a growing number of young people in the U.S. question whether college will set them apart or prepare them for what they want to create and accomplish. Praxis is his response to this developing need.
He is not alone in focusing on the emerging market of entrepreneurial-minded students. Another entrant is called The Minerva Project, which has an entirely different approach in which students will attend classes scattered across the globe with the professors teaching online from a remote location. Minerva’s founder, Ben Nelson, has a different philosophy as well; instead of building his school on a shoestring and developing a reputation over time, as Morehouse is attempting to do, Minerva has high profile financial backing and Nelson is gambling that he can rapidly manufacture Ivy League-like prestige instantly by involving celebrities such as Bob Kerrey, a former U.S. Senator, and Larry Summers, a former cabinet-level official under two presidents. Minerva is scheduled to open in the fall of 2015.
Making such a radical alternative to traditional higher education as Praxis successful will not be easy for anyone. Two major obstacles in Moorehouse’s path are long-established and related perceptions: one by young people and their families that they need a college degree to prepare them for professional careers, and one by employers that possession of a college degree is the best predictor of an applicant’s future professional success.
Morehouse hopes that, because of the program’s working requirement, Praxis students will stand out from the crowd by being able to show employers “a full portfolio of completed projects and real work experience with an endorsement from the business partner.”
He already seems to have solved much of the funding problem. Initially, the project was begun “on a shoestring,” with Morehouse using his own money and “trading favors and cashing in on social capital” with friends and family. He said the scarcity of startup cash was really a blessing, since “it forced us to be ruthlessly lean” and to focus on “the product” first.
Now that he has Praxis “rolling,” Morehouse said “some investors have taken interest and we’ve got a moderate amount of capital to get us through the start-up phase.”
And he won’t need that much money at first. He is expecting the initial class, which begins in February 2014, to only be between five and ten students. Morehouse insists on being highly selective, saying that “before we accept anyone” the school will make sure there is “a great business partner match” based on the students’ individual interests and abilities.
He said that, thus far, recruitment of prospective students has mainly been by word of mouth, social media, and through networks of young people who are open to “out of the box” thinking. He says of prospective students that “some have a degree but need more experience and practical knowledge. Some started college and felt it not worth the time and money. Others are taking a gap year to think about it.”
Morehouse added that, with the new infusion of seed money, Praxis will soon start buying advertisements on major social media sites.
Finding business sponsors is yet another hurdle that turned out to be surprisingly easy. He said he has found about 30 businesses willing to work with Praxis students with very little effort—mainly by reaching out to some entrepreneurs he and his partners know and letting them spread the word. Those businesses vary widely, from marketing, B2B (business-to-business) services, finance, real estate, software, video production, retail, and manufacturing. Morehouse said the common factors include “a dynamic workplace, growth-focus, a founder that is still actively involved, and an opportunity for Praxis participants to see all facets of running a business.”
Whether Praxis will be able to break new ground in training young people for professional careers won’t be known for a few years. Higher education is an industry that can be very resistant to change, particularly with the sort of ambitious, creative, accomplished students Morehouse seeks to attract. An MBA from an Ivy League university may have its flaws, but it is still an MBA from an Ivy League university and a Harvard or Yale diploma will continue to be a foot in the door at the top companies.
Still, the small initial scale Morehouse has planned might enable Praxis to survive until it becomes better known. He may have to eventually expand his target market beyond the highly motivated, aggressive sort of students he now seeks. But that may not be all bad; a program such as Praxis may have the potential to, within a relatively short period of ten months, shake some bright but confused young people out of the defeatist mindset instilled by the more traditional education establishments, the popular culture, and their peers. Too often, young people have been fed a steady diet of dependency—that the government is the key to prosperity instead of our own initiative—and shame—that we are a racist, sexist, imperialist nation that has for too long lived off the toil of others.
One might even consider it a model “boot camp” that can both prepare mature, sophisticated students for leadership roles and instill an adult mindset in those in need of correction. Either way, it is a welcome addition to the growing number of options for young people to get started in life.