As James Cashen approached his fall semester at Cornell University amid the global coronavirus pandemic, it turned out that most of his classes would be conducted online, leaving him wondering if tuition was even worth it this year.
"Me and my friends were figuring out how do we navigate this time where we do want to go back to school and get a degree but don't want to pay full tuition," Cashen told CNBC in an interview. "I also know I didn't want to just sit around."
Cashen is among the estimated 40% of students nationwide who are considering taking time off this year, as universities across the countries switch to mostly online models because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The high cost of a bachelor's degree has strained students and parents, who are demanding reduced fees and tuition, while universities struggle to find models that are both safe and equitable to the social college experience.
Cashen chose to take a gap year, and will instead participate in an online school run by a group of of ex-Google employees. This eight-week course called Xoogler School — named after the internal Google shorthand for ex-employees — will let students learn from some prominent Silicon Valley folks, many of whom come from some of the highest ranks at Google.
Open to college juniors and seniors, the Xoogler School lets students sign up to learn about careers, with training on roles ranging from engineering to sales, as well as those who simply don't know yet and just want to explore potential career options. Early applications opened this week for classes that begin on Sept. 14. A semester costs roughly the same as a single class at an Ivy League university, the group says on its website. Speaker series and workshops are free thanks to volunteers, said Christopher Fong, who leads the Xoogler Network.
It's "the best option" while waiting for some certainty around higher education, Cashen said.
"I still want to get my college degree, but for people like me — I'd want to know what skills I need to work on directly from the people I'd be working for," Cashen said.
Fong said that well before he landed his dream job at Google, he experienced his own challenges when he graduated during the dot-com crash. He and Cashen connected through his alma mater Cornell University.
The Xoogler Network isn't formally affiliated with Google, but the group does speak with staffers at the company regularly about helping start-ups run by former Google employees. Earlier this year, when the pandemic first hit, several ex-Google employees jumped in to offer home learning resources for families who were suddenly forced to learn from home. The Xoogler School is another example of the passion for education that many Google employees share.
"Education is a core component and something Larry and Sergey were passionate about while I was at Google," Fong said about the company's founders, who stepped down from their chief executive roles late last year. "They encouraged people to go to school on the side or teach later on and, a lot of people in the tech field feel responsible to give this back," he continued. "With a lot of jobs being able to work from home now, people don't necessarily need to move to Silicon Valley to get into tech and they can really see great-paying jobs in other places. We want to give people opportunities who don't have the inroads or natural network to do that."
Fong said he believes the school can fill the gap between what universities teach and what companies like Google expect from students in entry-level roles.
The core group of Xoogler School staffers running this school program can manage 100 students, but they believe they can easily scale by tapping more of its 9,000-plus member network if more students end up signing up. "We hope to be able to help hundreds of students this fall and thousands of students in the future," Fong said.
Already, a handful of current Google employees and more than 150 Google alums have volunteered to teach or mentor students for the Xoogler School. They include Amit Singh, former president of Google Cloud and current Palo Alto Networks president, who is teaching a session on how to "plan their career journey." Students can also learn how to land Google software engineering internships and positions from former Google software engineer Tara Trivedi. Stefanie Fackrell, a university programs and recruiting events manager at Samsung who also worked at Google, Apple and Genentech, will be speaking on "How to stand out to the top tech companies" and asked to host an AMA (Ask Me Anything) where she plans to invite a panel of fellow university recruiters.
The Google mentors get to pick what they want to teach, and while they're on a mostly volunteer basis, Fong said the group's considering future, more in-depth sessions in which mentors could potentially receive compensation. "We ask them things like how many hours they want to do and what they want to speak about," Cashen said. "Also, some students don't want to go into tech so we want them to talk about nontech roles."
Over the last few weeks, Cashen has helped organize speakers and lesson plans to address potential workforce challenges he and his friends have experienced during the pandemic.
"When it comes to internships, jobs and even just regular meetings — there's a lot around this confidence in pitching yourself through a Zoom call," Cashen said. "That was something we decided to have workshops and speakers around — this topic of communication in this new normal."
But perhaps the biggest benefit is simply access to successful tech mentors.
"The personal growth that comes from being immersed in a network of people that have built and sold multibillion-dollar companies is simply invaluable," said Nico Croce, a volunteer and former intern with the Xoogler group. "Imagine being trained to play basketball by LeBron James, Steph Curry, Shaq and other Hall of Famers."