In 2008, with only $25, Adam Braun launched Pencils of Promise, a nonprofit start-up that builds elementary schools in developing countries.
Now Braun is launching another start-up, MissionU, to provide ambitious young people with a way to skip college and get into the job market more quickly — without the drag of student loans.
Braun, 33, attended Brown University and graduated debt free, since his parents paid his tuition. His wife Tehillah, 29, however, had a vastly different experience. She dropped out of college midway through to start working full-time. By then, she already owed $110,000.
Inspired by Tehillah's struggles and those of millions of smart, motivated young people like her, Braun set out to build an alternative to the current higher education system in the U.S.
Tehillah's experience is a common one. Only about a third of students who enroll in either two- or four-year degree programs graduate in four years from the same institution, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse. The NSC began by tracking more than 2 million students who started college in 2010. Six years later, only half of students in the study had graduated from the institution where they had initially enrolled. 28.5 percent had dropped out.
Yet students continue to be responsible for repaying their loans, regardless of whether they succeed in obtaining a degree and, often, even if they declare bankruptcy. "Everything always came back to [Tehillah's] debt. It was just so crushing," says Braun. "I witnessed the personal, the professional, the emotional toll that this was taking on the person I cared most about."
MissionU launched Tuesday and is currently accepting applications. Potential students have to be at least 19 years old, but they are not judged on their previous academic experience; Mission U does not consider an applicant's GPA or SAT score. Applicants do not even have to have graduated from high school.
Instead, applicants are selected based on soft skills that employers value in employees, such as problem solving skills and ability to work well on a team.
If accepted, students at the one-year skills-focused program have no upfront payment. Instead, they agree to pay 15 percent of their salary for three years once they have graduated from the program and secured a job making at least $50,000 a year.
The target for graduates of MissionU is to land a job that pays $70,000, says Braun. To achieve that goal, Mission U will train its first graduates in data analytics and business intelligence. Additional concentrations will be added to the roster later.
The first cohort of 25 students will begin the program in September. The majority of the coursework is done online in live virtual classrooms, but students must live within 50 miles of the headquarters so they can attend limited on-campus, in-person meetings. Braun expects the first class to be located in or near San Francisco, but the actual location will be decided based on student demand.
The year is broken down into four parts: foundational skills, personal introspection, specialization and work experience, which is similar to an internship. The final six weeks of the program are called "career launch" and help graduates apply for jobs, interview and negotiate salaries.
Corporate partners including Lyft, Warby Parker, Casper, Bonobos, Spotify and Harry's help establish the curriculum so that MissionU graduates are sure to have the skills that employers need in their workers. Also, almost all of MissionU corporate partners have agreed to consider graduates for jobs. In return, they will get first pick of the program's top talent.
Braun knows there will be some resistance to the idea of circumventing the traditional four-year degree. He says that MissionU is not meant to replace the existing higher education system but merely to provide an alternative, especially for those students who would otherwise be burdened by massive loans.
"We are not right for every single student but there is a large group of young people in this country that college is a really, really bad decision for and they need a new pathway," says Braun.