I like to collect examples of college alternatives. I know this is unusual, given that most people like to collect coins, or matchbox labels, but I do think college alternatives are fascinating things.

College alternatives are educational programmes, typically a year or even two years long, which provide real-life learning through a mix of vocational classes and hands-on learning via internships, leading to a career pathway, almost always in tech. Some of the examples of college alternatives include Make School, Enstitute, Praxis, Experience Institute, Thiel Fellowship etc (see details about them below). Students who sign up for these programs are attracted by the prospect of making a speedy entry into the tech industry, given that the alternative is longer (4 yrs) and more expensive.

Essentially college alternatives tap into a couple of converging trends

  • millennial generation’s disillusionment with the poor ROI on college, largely due to rising tuition fees and the ineffectiveness of college in preparing students for the world outside
  • rising demand for technical talent, led by a boom in startups, often resulting in newly trained certificate holders getting salaries of $100,000+

Presently college alternatives are really a U.S. market phenomenon. I haven’t seen any mention of such ventures in European or Indian media. This is possibly given the nature of the U.S. higher ed marketplace where the undergrad degree is more of a generalist offering, as professional skills are delivered through Masters’ level degrees such as JD for law and MD for medicine etc., as contrasted with the rest of the world. This makes the U.S. undergrad degree somewhat less relevant for employment prospects, reinforced further by the relative high tuition structure. Such a situation is fertile for college alternatives, and they have been quick to take root there.

In this regard, college alternatives are rather similar to bootcamps, such as DevBootcamp, HackReactor, Metis etc. However there is a subtle distinction, or two, between the likes of an Enstitute and a HackReactor. The former is aimed more at the High School grad looking to bypass the 4-years of college. The latter typically sees more graduates, using these immersive courses to break into coding. The other distinction is around internships, required to provide high school grads with a taste for office culture.

If we look at the constituent bundles of university education – signalling (selectivity of intake as well as certification), skilling (learning), socialisation (interaction with peers, mentors), transformation (coming-of-age through life changing experiences) and access to opportunities, then we can see that what college replacements have done is really pick two of the core bundles – skilling and access to opportunities (you could argue that perhaps there is some transformation as well), and create a thin product that does these two functions of a university really really well. You can think of college replacement as akin to a chromebook.

The opposite of the college alternative might well be a college with high selectivity, very little skilling, high degree of socialisation, transformative experience and limited opportunities. Can you guess what this sounds like? The 5 IITs in the 60s-80s.

Retracing our steps back, i find that college alternatives have all the signs of Christensen’s low-end disruption – a stripped-down cheap product that emerges in response to an expensive over-engineered product, which has the potential over time to replace the original product.

Seen from this framework, we can see how MOOCs, originally providing only one of the bundles, i.e., skilling, is now beginning to add certification (signature track / verified certificate, specializations / xseries), in order to emerge as a potential college replacement product and disruptor. You could posit that you need two of the five bundles in order to be relevant. One may perhaps be insufficient.

Let us hypothesise about a product similar to that of the IITs in the 80s – highly selective, offering a transformative experience and socialization. Let us presume this is a 1-yr program. Programs such as Uncollege’s Gap Year or Global Citizen Year fit this bill. Given that it complements the college alternative program wonderfully, it is not hard to imagine a bright 18-yr old finishing his high school, and getting into a Global Citizen Year, and subsequently entering an Enstitute or Make School to complete all the bundles. In this scenario she is really assembling the bundles in the order she deems fit.

This, really, is the future of the degree. Unbundled and rebundled or assembled in the order the student deems fit. And it is also unlikely that all of the bundles will be consumed at one go. It is very likely that some bundles could be consumed, then interrupted for work, and then the other bundles would be consumed in parallel while working, or after having worked for a couple of years. Akin to how the MBA is consumed, after a couple of years of working.

College Alternatives
Make School
2 yrs; defined curriculum; 25% of first 2 yrs salaries + a % (not defined) of internship earnings

1 yr; defined curriculum, 3rd party providers; free

1 yr program; $11-14K; location not defined (depends upon employer)

Uncollege’s Gap Year Program
1 yr; $16K; SV location for 3m; some kind of curriculum
Meant for HS grads, but allow even college grads to apply

Starter School
Not presently open. Not clear if it is discontinued. Website redirects to their sister site.
1 yr, $36K, Chicago

The Experience Institute
$12K, 1yr, 3 apprenticeships, Chicago

Peter Thiel’s fellowship
2 yrs, students get $100K to drop out of college and start companies, no curriculum