Why you should care
Because this could be the future of college for more and more students.
This year’s graduating class was barely a baker’s dozen, and none of the students passing through the rite of passage received a degree. In fact, most of their families and friends were nowhere to be seen, and most of these newly bestowed grads won’t even be allowed to work in the U.S. if they stick around to take in the scenic vistas of Boulder, Colorado. Sameer Issa, for one, made the trek here from Jordan with the hope of returning home to start an animal therapy program for victims of post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions, which the 24-year-old says would be a first in his native country.
Welcome to a new alternative to alternative schools. Here, at Watson University, 15 scholars — most, but not all, of whom hail from outside the U.S. — recently completed their coursework at this specialized learning environment where students pursue their dreams, albeit in a highly structured, results-based lab. They’re part of a growing trend of alt colleges that aim to dramatically change the educational pursuits for a generation of millennial entrepreneurs and humanitarian wannabes who see less value with traditional educational models. “The entire higher ed system is long overdue for a lot of new interesting models,” says Kevin James, a research fellow with the think tank American Enterprise Institute.
Alternative ed’s rise reflects how students expect more choice and “disruptive” forms of everything, from phones to underwear.
Indeed, it wasn’t long ago that “alternative schools” were reserved for the troubled teens at your local middle school. Today, though, they’re at the forefront of a rapidly evolving approach to higher learning. For just about every kind of aspiring future leader, there’s a corresponding college with their name on it. Some future programmers and front-end developers are trying to juice their career paths by skipping a traditional computer sci degree and enrolling at New York’s Code + Design Academy, while tomorrow’s marijuana magnates are growing their green thumbs under the auspices of academia thanks to the Bay Area’s Oaksterdam University, America’s first self-declared “cannabis college.”
Among younger students, so-called alternative schools have been on the rise since the 1970s, and the charter school movement exploded after Congress passed the Charter Schools Act of 1992. In more recent years, elements from this favorite cause of conservatives, libertarians and many inner-city families and leaders have started to percolate up to colleges. For some, the rise of alternative models in the higher ed sector is a reflection of how students expect greater choice and “disruptive” forms of everything, from smartphones to underwear. But there are also more practical concerns, such as the rising cost of tuition with a sense of diminishing, marginal returns. Universities in China are reportedly creating a system to let students start a business while on a leave of absence from school, while entrepreneur Peter Thiel has backed grants so those under 20 can focus on work, research or other self-education while outside of college.
It’s a corner of the world with increasing appeal to folks like Finn Woelm, a 22-year-old from Germany who left Princeton after his freshman year. While he came to the U.S. to attend college, Woelm says he soon “realized how little emphasis there was at helping students figure out what they want to do with life. I don’t want to wake up one day being 40 years old and realize I’ve been chasing after things that weren’t actually meaningful to me,” he says.
Woelm ended up enrolling at Watson, which when it first launched a little over two years ago offered its scholars a four-month immersion experience in which they could study with leaders in their respective fields. Some of the mentors and “master course” teachers brought in then included past Nobel Prize winners, Priceline’s co-founder, HP’s chief technology officer, one of the early developers of Google Glass and even a European revolutionary who helped overthrow Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. Now how’s that for a history lesson?
Still, for all the high-minded talk about creating a new educational experience, Watson isn’t immune to the reality that most students still want a degree. A 2014 Pew Study found that over 90 percent of college graduates believe their degree already has, or will, pay off. In response to attitudes like that, Watson recently announced that its next round of scholars will be eligible to receive a bachelor’s of science in entrepreneurship thanks to a partnership with Lynn University, a small private school based in Boca Raton, Florida. Students will take their prerequisite coursework remotely while continuing to focus on their entrepreneurial studies at Watson. Of course, an online degree from Lynn doesn’t exactly sing like one from Princeton, and it’s hard to say whether the actual legacy of Watson’s scholars will last in the long run.
For its part, Watson is willing to bet on its students. Scholars can defer their entire $76,000 tuition bill up front and, instead, commit to paying back their debt through 3 to 5 percent of their future annual salary, a payment model that is gaining steam in some think tank circles but has struggled to catch on in practice. “If they don’t succeed, we don’t,” says Romain Vakilitabar, Watson’s vice president. “College should be investing in you, not the other way around.”