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Lessons for Higher Ed From the Demise of MissionU

MissionU is dead (read Inside Higher Ed's article here). Or pivoted. Or acquired. Or acqui-hired (by WeWork). Whatever. The bottom line is that the company is no longer accepting students.

In its brief life, MissionU got lots of money and lots of attention. The startup attracted $11.5 million in venture capital funding, and was featured on CNN Money and the Today Show (see the video).

The idea of MissionU was always interesting. The deal was that students paid nothing up-front for entry into each MissionU training cohort. The “tuition” would come only when the student got a job paying $50K or over, at which point they’d owe 15 percent of their earnings to MissionU for 3 years.  (Maximum payback was set at $45K). 

According to the MissionU website -- which is still live -- the company promised an “education that delivers” built on a “career-focused curriculum” that featured “real-time collaboration” and “real-world projects.” The 1-year MissionU program, a blend of online and city-based learning, was designed to be an “education for the 21st century.” Eighty percent of the program was online, with the remainder in person. The skills that the program promised to teach included:  “...hard skills [such as] business writing, excel modeling, powerpoint and keynote, public speaking, regression analysis, and SQL. Soft skills include persuasive communication, giving and receiving feedback, time management, critical problem solving and team dynamics.” The one “major” available to MissionU students was data analytics and business intelligence. The final three months of the MissionU program were to be spent in an internship.

What lessons might the short life and painless death of MissionU have to offer us about the future of higher education? I’ll offer 4 - and invite you to both dispute my list and to add your own takeaways:

Lesson 1 -- Failed, but Not a Failure:

MissionU may have failed, but it is not a failure. The company was able to attract funding, students, and attention. The business model of MissionU offered real value to both those enrolled in the program, and the companies in which the graduates would have worked. MissionU brought into sharp relief the challenges that traditional postsecondary institutions have in providing an affordable education.

The skills that MissionU focused on are in demand by both students and employers. Ultimately, I suspect, the MissionU math just couldn’t work. The model of providing a quality 1-year experience could not scale fast enough to satisfy investors. This is not an indictment of the value of MissionU, but rather a lesson about the challenges inherent in sustaining any startup.

The worst thing that those of us in traditional higher education can do is to gloat over the demise of MissionU. The critique of the higher ed current model that MissionU builts its business on remains valid. The hunger of many students for an alternative to the current higher ed options remains real. The fact that MissionU could not make its business work is not an indication that the existing system of higher education does not need to change. If anything, the end of MissionU shows exactly how difficult it will be to evolve our system of postsecondary education into something that makes sense in the 21st century.

Lesson 2 -- Liberal Arts Graduates Are the Best:

This relevant, creative, and exciting educational startup was founded -- you guessed it -- by a graduate of a liberal arts institution.  Adam Braun, the CEO & co-founder of MissionU, is a Brown University graduate. Brown has to be given at least some credit for providing Braun with the mix of skills and audacity required to get this startup in the educational space off the ground.

MissionU may not have ultimately succeeded in becoming a viable business, but we should still applaud the fact that Braun took a shot. He took a risk. He no doubt worked insane hours and endured all the stresses of a co-founder. He is a great example of what we want from our graduates. I hope that he is invited back to Brown -- or your campus -- to talk to current students about the experience of starting, running, and ultimately closing MissionU.

Lesson 3 -- Nonprofit Colleges Are Resilient Because Higher Ed Is A Terrible Business:

Higher education is a terrible business. It is a business that, by its very nature, is almost destined to lose money. Ironically, it is the fact that higher education is such a bad business that most colleges and universities will persist. Sure, some small colleges will shut their doors or merge in the next few decades -- particularly those in areas of the country that are seeing declines of recent high school graduates -- but overall the sector will remain mostly stable. The vast majority of schools will not close. Instead, they will muddle on.

Why does a bad business equal stronger resiliency? Why would any single institution want to be part of an industry where the basic economics are so challenging? The reason has everything to do with why MissionU could not turn itself into a sustainable long-term business. MissionU needed to satisfy investors. It was not enough for MissionU to just cover its costs. For this reason, MIssionU needed to grow. To scale. Nonprofit colleges don’t need to satisfy investors. They just need to figure out some way to cover their costs. This is a very hard goal to reach. But for most, it is a goal that is attainable.

The demand for higher education is not going to go away. Future demand for undergraduate and graduate degrees will only increase. What we are seeing is not an overall decrease in the demand for higher education, but a shift in that demand based on geography (demographics), age (an aging population), and labor markets (as new skills and credentials are prioritized by employers). Most existing nonprofit institutions will be in a better position to meet this demand than new (for-profit) entrants into the market. We see this with the rapid decline of for-profit institutions, and with examples such as MissionU.

Nonprofits can use methods such as online learning and the development of specialized degrees to meet the changing demand for higher education. The competition between non-profits for students will be (and is) fierce. The threats for existing schools, however, are competitive -- not existential. The ability to remain viable and sustainable hinges mostly on the decisions that individuals schools will make (or not make). Their destinies are (largely) in their own own hands. Some individual institutions will fail, but these failures will be due to a long history of bad decisions -- rather than any systemic collapse of the larger postsecondary market.

Lesson 4 -- Alternative Credentials Will Complement, Rather Than Replace, Traditional Degrees:

Alternative credentials don’t replace traditional credentials, they complement them. A certificate in data analytics and business intelligence is great, but even better if it is accompanied by a bachelor's degree. (Or even better, a masters). A nontraditional credential is a signal to employers about a particular skill. A traditional degree is a different sort of signal. It indicates that a potential employee has navigated their way to a diploma. That they have overcome the obstacles and challenges of getting a degree. And that, hopefully, they have developed a wider range of communication, collaboration and cognitive skills then can be acquired solely through skills-based training.

The idea that alternative credentials complement, rather than replace, traditional degrees should not make traditional institutions complacent. Just because the overall demand for both traditional and nontraditional credentials is likely to increase in the future does not mean that the demand for credentials at any particular institution will also increase. If today’s institutions fail to evolve they will lose relevancy in this changing credentialing ecosystem.

Traditional schools need to figure out how to offer degree that provide value above and beyond what can be gained from a nontraditional (micro) credential. Nontraditional skills-based credentials will raise the value of a liberal arts education. Any sort of education that can’t be scaled -- that is dependent on relationships between educators and learners -- will become more valuable. The worst thing that nonprofit colleges and universities can do would be to jettison an education built around acquiring lifetime habits of curiosity and critical thinking.

What do you think are the lessons of the rise and fall of MissionU?

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