For those wary of macro-debt, a micro-college may be the way to go
We are digging into our archives this week to re-publish a series of thought-provoking essays on higher education we’ve published over the past two years. As this year’s high school seniors finalize their post-graduation plans, we thought it might be worth revisiting some of the big questions facing higher education today. We hope you have enjoyed this series of pieces from the vault. Today’s by John David Seel Jr. originally appeared on May 25, 2022.
It depends on who you ask, but for many among the rising generation of potential college students, the answer is “No.” As Covid-19 pushed students out of the classroom and on to Zoom, a trend, a decade in the making, began to accelerate even faster: The traditional college model (along with its role as the gatekeeper to the American Dream) is losing its relevance.
Our traditional university systems, built during the Industrial Age to provide “workers” for America’s booming factories, have failed to adjust to the onset of the Information Age, where pundits like Tesla’s Elon Musk have claimed that “. . . you don’t need college to learn stuff. Everything you need to learn is available online—for free.” Along with Musk, IBM, Apple, and even the federal government (following President Trump’s executive order emphasizing skills over degrees) have declared that great jobs are no longer the natural byproducts of college degrees. Throw in the fact that since 1960 college tuition rates have increased exponentially more than even healthcare costs, and the myth that college is some great arbiter of socioeconomic mobility and progress slowly fades away. The list of frustrations with—and inadequacies of—the traditional university system is long.
- Cost and efficiency – College debt ($1.6 trillion) is more costly to Americans than both credit cards ($0.99 trillion) and auto loans ($1.2 trillion). The average graduate holds over $30,000 in student loan debt, mostly for graduate school. Pair that with the fact that over 70% end up in jobs outside of the field they majored in and college seems to become the least effective and most expensive way to enter the marketplace.
- Relevance – Almost all colleges are measured by their input metrics (how many students apply, their average ACT or SAT scores) but they do very little to measure their output (i.e., how many profited from their investment of time, money, and energy in school to become a successful member of society). Where are the metrics measuring the impact coursework has on students, career placement after school, and the like? The traditional universities make far more of an effort in admissions than they do in connecting students to a career—much less a personal calling.
- Meaning and Purpose – The liberal arts used to exist so that students could build a holistic, coherent framework within which to live. Only once you knew the story you were living in could you begin to wisely live in it, the thinking went. Theology and philosophy and sociology and anthropology were all connected. Now these courses are just “gen eds” to blow through on your way to your major. Few students graduate with a unified narrative or a coherent sense of meaning. They are left instead with a head full of fragmented factoids. Students do not begin with “why.” This leaves most college graduates devoid of a sense of meaning and purpose.
- Motivation and Belonging – Students know that a high-paying job will not bring meaning because they learned it from their parents. Instead, these young people face life with a high degree of loneliness, anxiety, depression, and meaninglessness. They aren’t motivated by high-paying jobs disconnected from a sense of calling. They want, rather, authenticity, connectedness, and belonging. They want a job that plays to their passions and giftings, and to live in a community where they and others can flourish.
For many, college has ceased to live up to its value proposition of preparing young people for thriving in adulthood.
Industries that lose their effectiveness while their costs continue to rise are ripe for disruption. This is true of higher education. In 2025 there will be 15 percent fewer potential college students than at the time of the great recession of 2008. NYU marketing professor Scott Galloway and the late Harvard professor Clayton Christensen predict that many traditional universities will start their long death march towards bankruptcy in the years following the pandemic. Galloway estimates 10-30% while Christensen estimates 25%!
Disruption is coming. But it is not all bad news. Enter the micro-college.
A micro-college is a small, 200-person or less single degree college typically oriented towards the liberal arts and Great Books. They are created to directly address the frustrations listed above, and over a dozen of them have popped up in the last decade. They each have their own distinctives and proposed secret sauce.
One of them is Excel College, a small Christian school built around classical learning, hands-on experience, and community-centered apprenticeship in Black Mountain, North Carolina. This college is growing. It is increasingly capturing the imagination of young people frustrated with the traditional college model and looking for a new way to start life.
Excel College promises “education beyond a degree” because it believes that education is for the whole person—not just for the classroom. Here your spiritual life, practical world, and aspirations for making a difference are just as important as your intellectual and professional life. Excel College’s mission is to produce wise, mature, and productive adults for a life of flourishing—because as individuals flourish, so do families, and as families flourish, so do the communities around them.
How do they do it?
First, Excel has a tuition model devoid of loans and debt. It’s structured as a work-study college where all students are employed in the marketplace. During the first fifteen months the parents pay one-third of the cost, students earn and pay one-third, and the college’s scholarships cover one-third. During the final fifteen months most students are financially independent through marketplace earnings and scholarships. Not only is this model more equitable and affordable but students also have a vested interest in their education because they earn it.
Second, the students never change classes, classmates, or professors during the classroom portion of the program, participating in a Socratic cohort model in which everyone learns together through discussion. It’s a modular, sequential approach: They take one class at a time in the flow of a grand narrative. The courses that comprise the traditional liberal arts build off of one another as students, many for the first time, begin to see how all the pieces fit together to make a cohesive whole. They come away with a coherent framework within which to build their lives.
Third, students live in homes, not dorms. Meals are prepared and shared together and everyone in the home is responsible for its upkeep. The normal routines of “adulting” are woven into everyday life experience, and because of the closeness of the home environment, where students stay, worship, work, and play together, no one falls through the cracks.
Fourth, Excel prepares students for the marketplace. The soft skills of a liberal arts education (reading, writing, thinking, and speaking) gained in the classroom phase are paired with a practicum phase in which students get hands-on experience in the field of their choice through apprenticeships, internships, or independent research study. This is done with the aim of serving their surrounding town. After building a framework to live out of during the classroom phase, students begin to discover their own passions, gifts, and callings in the practicum phase, equipping them to bring their gifts and talents to the marketplace. It’s a paradigm shift where students look for jobs where they can give of themselves to others, not just get for themselves.
Students graduate ready to become productive, contributing members of society, having discovered a sense of belonging, built a framework to live out of, learned real-life skills through hands-on experience and graduated debt free.
Are colleges worth it? That depends. Most might not be. But if you’re looking to become a wise, mature, and productive adult oriented toward a life of flourishing, there might be one that’s right for you. The great disruption is creating new opportunities for young people.
John Seel is a cultural analyst and writer living in Philadelphia. He is the former director of cultural engagement at the John Templeton Foundation. He is the author of The New Copernicans: Millennials and the Survival of the Church and Network Power: The Science of Making a Difference.
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