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It seemed like a classic utopian vision. Free prestigious university classes delivered online, open to anyone, offering the potential to slay the college debt monster.
Instead, so-called Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) proved how little students often learn from online classes. Dropout rates as high as 90 percent were reported, and it seemed that traditional higher ed's stranglehold as the gateway to higher-paying jobs was even tighter.
But new models of higher education alternatives are rising from those ashes that really can challenge—or neatly supplement—a college degree. MOOCs have morphed into hybrid programs with a more human touch, and ultrafocused, skills-based training courses in fields like computer programming are proving to be real contenders, offering 90 percent-plus job placement rates.
The success of programs like General Assembly and The Flatiron School in New York City lead to an inevitable question—at least if you're technically inclined: Why spend $200,000 on four years of college when you can spend $10,000 on 12 weeks of training and get hired by an app developer for $70,000 or more?
"We're trying to democratize education, make it available to as many people as possible," said Vish Makhijani, chief operating officer of Udacity, which ran some of those celebrated MOOC failures.
Udacity has abandoned the idea of giving classes away to huge numbers of people in favor of "nanodegrees "—boot-camp style, short-term programs with a laser-like focus on preparing students for a career. Nanodegree subjects include Web developer, Android developer, iOS developer ... you get the picture.
What you don't get is a huge student loan debt. Udacity classes start at $1,200 for a six-month program. The fees have actually helped with online classes' biggest problem: High dropout rates. Turns out, more people stick with classes if they have to pay for them.
"Our form factor, delivery over the Web and mobile, makes it very affordable. And we've decided to do that away from the traditional university system," Makhijani said. The school has also added an Uber-like version of peer reviews, digital age teaching assistants, which lets students grab virtual roving experts and get one-on-one feedback that was sorely missing from initial MOOCs.
Read MoreCollege degree: Still worth it?
When Udacity pivoted toward computer programming courses, it found a cottage industry of "hack schools" were already thriving in the space.
General Assembly offers intense, in-person training to students in 14 cities. Co-founder Jake Schwartz comes from a private equity investment background, and thinks higher education institutions will have to offer a better deal to students in the future.
"What we think of as college now is a luxury good," Schwartz said. "Think of the value proposition. No. 1 is baby-sitting young adults. It's a safe place for them to learn about themselves and learn to drink beer. No. 2 is the liberal arts idea of becoming a citizen of the world. And then No. 3 is helping you prepare for economic life. ... But I ask, 'What is the value proposition?"
General Assembly's answer to that question: A good job. Tuition isn't cheap. Students pay anywhere from $3,500 for part-time courses to around $10,000 for immersive eight- to 12-week courses, in subjects ranging from Web development to data science to digital marketing. But Schwartz says 99 percent of them get a job within 180 days of completion.
"We focus solely on in-demand, contemporary skills," he said. "We are trying to deliver an outcome."
Avi Flombaum is himself a college dropout who went on to co-found the Flatiron School in New York City, which now charges $15,000 for 12-week immersive courses in subjects like Android app development. He brags about a third-party audit that claims essentially all Flatiron graduates get jobs earning at least $70,000 a year upon completion.
Many are college graduates who need help making the next step in life, he said. But the school does offer an eight-month fellowship program designed to help 18- to 26-year-old New Yorkers without a four-year degree develop the programming skills they need to get hired as Web developers.
"The college problem is about more than debt," Flombaum said. "It's about students being unprepared and undirected about how to enter the workforce. It's a combination of a skills gap and also a general lack of direction. Students aren't sure what they enjoy doing. They are inquisitive and smart but not sure what job going to allow them to work in that way and make a living."
Skills-based schools are aiming to disrupt the lives of teachers, too. Fedora is among the several services that allow anyone with expertise to teach anything online. Fedora takes a cut, but teachers keep most of the tuition they charge. Class prices can range from just a few dollars to several thousands. And while there is the odd successful watercolor course, tech classes are by far the most popular says founder Ankur Nagpal.
"We are moving from a credential-based economy to a skills-based economy. It doesn't matter if you are certified. What matters is that you can do the job," he said. "Who is to say someone with a Ph.D. is better at teaching you how to code? We are trying to democratize teaching."
So far, these boot camp training programs haven't strayed far from the obvious, focusing primarily on technologically driven courses like coding apps, managing databases and so on. Students who invest so heavily in a specific skill—rather than a more general topic area like engineering—might find their options limited in an industry that changes so quickly. After all, who knows how long Android app coding skills will pay well?
The "hack schools" that dot Silicon Valley promise a shovel during a gold rush, but critics point out that they can't give students the prestige of a brand-name university degree, or the more holistic view of computer science that four years of classes can offer.
Flombaum argues that coding offers life skills too. "We can teach skills that will never go away: How you approach a problem; being able to articulate a thinking process to a computer; how to understand logic. What coders are really good at is thinking about thinking," he said.
In what might seem an irony, Flombaum is among the boot camp tech-class crowd that's skeptical of online course delivery. In-person coaching and camaraderie are both essential elements of learning, this group argues.
"Education is not [just] about content. That's like giving someone a textbook," agrees General Assembly's Schwartz. "It's not just about exercises. There's the emotional journey, career coaching, interactions with peers. All these dynamics are incredibly important to learning ... we are going to have more of a blended model, but we are very skeptical that the core of our business will be online. "
One big advantage skills schools have over other institutions of higher learning: they can be as nimble as the job market. It can take a decade for a university to develop a new major field of study; Udacity says it can create a brand-new nanodegree within four or five months.
That's particularly important in a world where workers might change careers four or five times in a lifetime. Today's 22-year-old college graduate might raise a family supported by a job in an industry that doesn't even exist yet, and many boot camps think their sweet spot will be in retraining midcareer professionals rather than replacing college. About 40 percent of Udacity's students are 35 or older, the firm says.
"Most of our students have college degrees. We are disrupting graduate school more than colleges," Schwartz said.
But college is clearly in the crosshairs.
"We have numerous testimonials from people who say, 'I came from a four-year degree program ... and then I pay $79 for an online class that gets me more opportunity than my $30,000 degree,'" says Fedora's Nagpal. "Now, jobs are not the only way of quantifying the value of an education, but it's impossible not to think that's going to change a lot of things."
Makhijani, of Udacity, talks about "unbundling" the elements of the university experience—skills training could come from boot camp courses, while community building and more general courses could be delivered separately. "But that will take time."
One reason for the delay: nanodegrees and bootcamps are so dominated by computer programming offerings that it's unclear the format will work well in other subject areas. While learning to manipulate data is important in every field today ( "In reality, every company is a tech company," said Schwartz), you won't soon find many people signing their kids up for a school full of elementary teachers with 10 weeks of training or to be defended by lawyers with nano-law degrees.
Still, Flatiron School's Flombaum believes that education has become too much of an either/or proposition in the minds of most. Online or in person, college or boot camp, liberal arts or STEM.
"Look, there are very few bad guys in education. Nobody said, 'Hey guys, let's hike up tuition and totally screw everybody.' We are not an indictment of higher education," he said. "The problem is when [it seems like] the only option is a college buy-in to a four-year degree and $60,000 in debt. ... That's such a myopic view. And you're front-loading your entire education investment, and I don't think we'll ever live in a world where something we learned 10 years ago will work for us today. The opportunity cost is too high for too many people and we pretend that it's not."