Is this the fu­ture of col­lege: On­line classes, but no de­gree?

The Columbus Dispatch - - Nation&world - By Maria Danilova

WASH­ING­TON — Con­nor Mitchell’s uni­ver­sity classes take place on­line, he doesn’t have any ex­ams and he stud­ies in a dif­fer­ent country ev­ery year.

Is he look­ing into the fu­ture or tak­ing a gam­ble?

With col­lege costs ris­ing steadily and with more cour­ses avail­able on­line for free, some ob­servers are be­gin­ning to ques­tion the need for a tra­di­tional col­lege ed­u­ca­tion that may in­clude lec­tures on Greek phi­los­o­phy but bur­den stu­dents with mas­sive debt.

Ed­u­ca­tion star­tups are of­fer­ing al­ter­na­tives — from boot camps, to one- or two-year tracks, to ac­cred­ited de­gree pro­grams — and their founders say these op­tions will give stu­dents a more rel­e­vant ed­u­ca­tion in to­day’s job mar­ket, and at a lower price.

But some ex­perts cau­tion against bet­ting on a nar­row, prac­ti­cal ed­u­ca­tion geared to­ward a spe­cific field that is in de­mand to­day but could leave them un­pre­pared for the jobs of to­mor­row. They also say most ap­pli­cants still need a col­lege de­gree from an es­tab­lished in­sti­tu­tion to get a good job.

Min­erva, an ac­cred­ited four-year uni­ver­sity named af­ter the Greek god­dess of wis­dom, wants to rein­vent elite four-year lib­eral arts ed­u­ca­tion by teach­ing crit­i­cal think­ing as op­posed to “re­gur­gi­tat­ing in­for­ma­tion,” founder Ben Nel­son said.

“You can­not teach your­self how to think crit­i­cally, you ac­tu­ally have to go through a struc­tured process,” said Nel­son, an en­er­getic, fast-talk­ing 41-year-old, who pre­vi­ously served as pres­i­dent of the photo print­ing web­site Snap­fish. “What is sad is that wis­dom is wasted on the old. Wis­dom should be the tool for the young.”

All of Min­erva’s classes take place on­line. The in­ter­ac­tive plat­form is de­signed to keeps stu­dent en­gaged and al­low pro­fes­sors to call on them. Min­erva stu­dents start school in San Fran­cisco and then spend time in Berlin, Buenos Aires, Ar­gentina, Taipei, Tai­wan, and other global hubs, con­tin­u­ing to take on­line classes and com­plet­ing hands-on as­sign­ments at lo­cal com­pa­nies and or­ga­ni­za­tions.

Cost is $29,000 per year for tuition plus room and board, com­pared with an av­er­age of $20,000 for an in-state pub­lic col­lege and $63,000 at Har­vard, with which Min­erva says it wants to com­pete. This year, Min­erva, boasted an ac­cep­tance rate of 1.9 per­cent, com­pared with 5.2 per­cent at Har­vard. The na­tion­wide av­er­age in 2014 was 66 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion for Col­lege Ad­mis­sion Coun­sel­ing.

The first class launched in 2014, so it is too early to eval­u­ate grad­u­a­tion and em­ploy­ment rates. Nel­son said ev­ery sin­gle first-year stu­dent who chose to work last sum­mer was placed in an in­tern­ship. Cur­rently, there are over 270 peo­ple en­rolled at the school.

Mitchell, 21, who trans­ferred to Min­erva from the Uni­ver­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, says the on­line class ex­pe­ri­ence was stress­ful at first, but he was im­pressed by the level of dis­cus­sion and prepa­ra­tion for the classes. At USC, he said he stud­ied “so much less.” When asked to com­pare the two, he turned to a metaphor.

“At the USC steak­house it was the sides, the things that I did out­side of the class­room that were re­ally valu­able. The steak ac­tu­ally wasn’t pre­pared very well,” Mitchell said. “At Min­erva, the steak that I am pay­ing for is cut per­fectly.”

Not every­body is con­vinced.

Some ques­tion Min­erva’s abil­ity to teach sci­ence with­out labs or test tubes and be­lieve that aca­demic re­search re­quires the space and en­vi­ron­ment af­forded by tra­di­tional uni­ver­si­ties.

Peter Cap­pelli, a pro­fes­sor at the Whar­ton School of the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia who stud­ies the U.S. la­bor mar­ket, be­lieves that stu­dents may be tak­ing a big risk by sign­ing up for a still rel­a­tively un­known pro­gram.

“It’s not what you learn, it’s what you can per­suade other peo­ple what you’ve learned,” Cap­pelli said. “It’s hard to over­come that risk un­til the schools build up a brand on the mar­ket.”

But some in­no­va­tors say a col­lege de­gree may be ob­so­lete.

Mis­sionU, which be­gan ac­cept­ing its first ap­pli­ca­tions last month, of­fers a one-year non­de­gree pro­gram in data an­a­lyt­ics and busi­ness in­tel­li­gence with­out an up­front tuition. As part of an in­come-shar­ing agree­ment, Mis­sionU stu­dents will give back 15 per­cent of their salary for three years af­ter grad­u­a­tion if they earn at least $50,000 per year. So far, the school re­ceived over 3,000 ap­pli­ca­tions.

Stu­dents will be tak­ing on­line cour­ses taught by in­dus­try prac­ti­tion­ers and com­plet­ing real-life projects and as­sign­ments for var­i­ous com­pa­nies. Part­ner firms such as Spo­tify, Lyft, Warby Parker and oth­ers are ad­vis­ing Mis­sionU on its cur­ricu­lum and have agreed to con­sider its stu­dents for jobs with­out a col­lege de­gree. The first group of stu­dents will be based in San Fran­cisco. A high-school diploma will not be re­quired for ad­mis­sion.

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