Why you should care
Isaac Morehouse’s apprentice model skips college altogether to get students into careers without the debt.
When he speaks at academic conferences on the future of higher education, as in all other professional settings, Isaac Morehouse’s preferred attire is jeans, flip-flops and a T-shirt bearing the logo of Praxis, the company he founded with the ambitious goal of killing off the college degree. “If I could get away without the flip-flops, I would, actually, and just go barefoot,” he says. “It’s a combination of pragmatism and utilitarianism and radicalism. I don’t want to rebel against wearing a suit just because it’s a tradition, but it’s uncomfortable, and there’s no point to it.”
Despite having one himself, Morehouse feels similarly about college degrees. Earlier this year, total outstanding student loan debts in America surpassed $1.5 trillion for the first time, exceeding consumer credit card debts. By 2023, nearly 40 percent of student loan borrowers will have defaulted on their debts, one study projects. The staggering figures bring new urgency to a perennial question: Is college really worth it, or is there a better way to launch a professional career?
Morehouse, 34, not only believes that there is, but he backs it up with a new model: apprenticeships. Since launching in 2013, Praxis claims a 96 percent success rate in landing its graduates entry-level professional jobs — mainly soft-skills positions such as marketing or sales at startups. Following a six-month skills “boot camp” conducted online, participants do a paid six-month internship at one of roughly 75 partner companies around the country — startups that include Bitcoin payment processor BitPay and enterprise software company PandaDoc. The program, which emphasizes building up a body of project work to showcase to potential employers, costs $11,000, but the internship is paid at $15 an hour, for a total of $14,400 over six months.
People with sports cars have higher incomes too, but that doesn’t mean you should buy a sports car.
Morehouse says the company, which has about 120 apprentices currently enrolled, cleared $1 million in revenue last year and is on track to top $1.5 million in 2018. His isn’t the only program like this to launch in recent years, with top competitors including MissionU, a yearlong training course focused in data analytics, and GenM, an apprenticeship program for digital marketing.
The internships sometimes lead to full-time jobs, as was the case for James Walpole, 22, now the manager of marketing and communications at BitPay. In 2014, after graduating from a small private high school near Charleston, South Carolina, he rejected a modest scholarship to attend Belmont University and gambled on Praxis. “It was the first really risky decision I made,” Walpole says. “I knew that I was fairly impractical and missing what I needed to be independent.” But college, with its mix of “rear-kissing high achievers” and party animals, just didn’t feel like a place he’d fit in.
Morehouse is a married father of four who lives in Charleston. Though he is obsessed with efficiency and results, Praxis students describe him as endearingly goofy, with a dad-like sense of humor that seems premature for his age. Morehouse grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where his parents decided to home-school him along with his siblings. When he was 3, his father was gravely injured in a car crash and went into a coma for several months. After he emerged from the coma, he needed round-the-clock care from Morehouse’s mother, all while she home-schooled the three children. Morehouse, the youngest, recalls his childhood as full of chores, but also lots of independence.
After two years of community college, Morehouse transferred to Western Michigan University, where he majored in political science and minored in philosophy. Between classes, he worked three days a week installing phone and computer cables in businesses around the state. “Meanwhile, I’d sit in these classes that the professors didn’t want to be teaching, with everybody hungover just waiting until the next time they can party,” he recalls. For Morehouse, the most intellectually stimulating parts of college were the free ones: reading books and debating friends at the coffee shop. “What am I paying for?” he wondered. “Why does everybody say you need this to get a job?”
After college, Morehouse worked at several education-focused nonprofits, where he noticed a curious trend. “Businesspeople were telling me, ‘I can’t find good talent,’ and at the same time recent graduates are telling me, ‘I have a degree, all this debt, and nobody’s hiring,’” he says. “I just got this simple idea: What about the apprenticeship model?” In early 2013, he was walking on the beach on the Isle of Palms outside Charleston when the word praxis, a Greek-derived term meaning the practical application of a theory, struck him, and the seed of the company was planted.
Skepticism of the value of a college degree is nothing new. In 1976, economist Richard Freeman warned that rising rates of college attendance could render degrees practically worthless. But studies of post-degree earnings have consistently shown that undergraduate degrees continue to pay off, with increased earnings producing an average 10–20 percent yearly return on the cost.
Morehouse argues that college admissions processes essentially screen for people with higher IQs and stronger work ethics who would naturally go on to earn more over the course of a lifetime, degree or no. “People with sports cars have higher incomes too, but that doesn’t mean you should buy a sports car,” he says.
Rob Toutkoushian, a professor at the University of Georgia’s Institute of Higher Education, admits it’s difficult to control for individual characteristics when studying the value of a degree and says statistical modeling is the closest experts can get to weeding out individual traits such as high school grades and family economic status. “Those kinds of studies still found average sizable payoffs,” he says.
Morehouse’s biggest challenge isn’t his economic pitch to prospective apprentices; it’s their parents, who remain wedded to the “prestige factor.” Lydia Hodgson’s parents were among the skeptics when she proposed declining a generous scholarship to a private college to try Praxis instead. “They were raised with the idea that in order to get ahead you should go to college,” the 20-year-old says of her parents, who work as an author and a corporate sales executive. “But they are aware it’s a changing landscape.” After completing the Praxis boot camp, Hodgson moved to Pittsburgh in February of 2017 to apprentice with Go Realty, a real estate and property development firm. She found the work exciting and engaging, and quickly accepted when the company offered her a full-time position on the marketing team.
For all of his skepticism of college as a workforce credential, Morehouse has a philosophical bent, and strongly believes in the value of studying the liberal arts. He just doesn’t think there should be a degree granted at the end of the process. “Eighty percent of students would stop going, but the ones who did would be incredibly interested in the material,” he says. “There’s a ton of value when people are there because they are genuinely interested.”
5 Questions for Isaac Morehouse
- What’s the last book you finished? Shoe Dog [Nike founder Phil Knight’s memoir].
- What do you worry about? The Detroit Lions.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? A daily walk.
- How do you define success? Constant growth.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? Step foot on another planet.