MissionU and the Emergence of the College Alternative

Perhaps more rapidly than ever, our work lives are changing. The concept of a career is dramatically evolving — the idea of life long allegiance to a company, occupation or industry has everything but disappeared, whether by choice or necessity. How we get our jobs, how long we keep them, whether we are employed or a freelancer, what we actually do at work — all of this is morphing at an unprecedented pace.

As everywhere else, software has had a disproportionate impact on this evolution, exposing opportunities and increasing market fluidity (job boards, LinkedIn), changing hiring processes (applicant tracking systems) and hiring criteria (“how are your Salesforce skills?”), and impacting the daily reality of work (Slack), vacation (always on) or the very nature of the job itself (data scientist, Uber driver). And, as the generation that never knew a world without the Internet hits the job market, we’re in the early innings of an even more profound evolution: the gradual penetration of artificial intelligence in all layers of human activity.

Against this rapidly evolving reality, we’re educating future generations through one dominant model — college — that emerged in Europe in the XI century and in America in the XVII century. From the Ivy League to the GI Bill, college is a deeply ingrained part of the American fabric, a widely accepted norm and a major goal for the vast majority of families.

In principle, and often enough in reality, college is a wonderful thing. Four years of learning, experimenting, socializing and maturing (in various proportions). A rite of passage into early adulthood. And there’s certainly an argument for thinking that, in a context where the job you’ll have in 15 years may very well not yet exist today, a broad education that teaches you how to learn and how to think may be exactly what you need.

Unfortunately, for most students, the logic breaks once you start looking at college in economic terms. From that perspective, college in America is a product with an increasingly terrible ROI.

Perhaps, if you’re one of the chosen few who gets in an Ivy League or other top school, you may very well get a good “return” on your investment, in the form of a good job (although, as we saw in the aftermath of the 2008 Great Recession, there are no guarantees). Or if you belong to the small group of students who , through a combination of difficult economic circumstances and merit, get full ride scholarships, your lower “investment” may continue to make the ROI equation of college work.

But for everybody else out there — the vast majority of higher ed students in America — the situation is increasingly dire. Almost every student (90%+) says they go to college to get a job and make more money. Yet 74% of college graduates believe their university failed to prepare them for work, and employers agree. Average net earnings of college graduates have actually been decreasing. Most importantly, the cost of college has been skyrocketing, leaving students with vast amounts of debt ($50,000 on average for today’s freshmen), which happens to be the one type of debt that generally cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. Millions leave college with a few credits but no degrees, while many others graduate in 5 or 6 years as they need to work side jobs to support themselves while in college.

This crisis, which has been brewing for decades but is now reaching a tipping point, makes it absolutely necessary for viable alternatives to emerge, for the many students for whom college does not make sense.

Today I’m thrilled to announce that FirstMark is leading an $8.5M Series A in MissionU, an exciting new provider of “college alternative” education, co-founded by Adam Braun (previously the founder of Pencils of Promise, a highly innovative and successful charity, and a New York Times bestselling author), and Mike Adams (previously of boot camp startup Hack Reactor).

MissionU offers a one-year program that combines general education with specialized skills training to prepare individuals for real-world jobs. Leveraging lessons learned by observing decades of experimentation in online learning, and more recently coding bootcamps, MissionU offers a program that pushes higher education resolutely into the 21st century: small cohorts, a blended online/offline model, project based learning that simulates work environments, emphasis on soft skills and team work, and deep relationships with employer partners (Spotify, Uber, Warby Parker, Harry’s, Birchbox, 2U, etc.). Lastly, MissionU enables its students to graduate debt-free through the use of an income sharing agreement (ISA), fully aligning MissionU’s revenues with its students’ success.

As in any early-stage investment, ultimately the decision is all about the privilege of working with exceptional founders. The education industry can be unforgiving, and requires teams with a very special blend of missionary zeal, hard-nosed business sense and a very rare ability to build a dominant brand. Adam and Mike bring all of this to the table and then some, and we’re honored that they chose to partner with FirstMark among the several quality options that they had for this financing round.

MissionU just launched its first cohort in San Francisco (4,700 applications for 25 spots) in an area that’s near and dear to my heart: data analytics and business intelligence. The next cohort will kick off in January 2018 in SF with the same major, and MissionU will expand to other cities shortly thereafter. Applications are open here. Stay tuned for more to come from this team!

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