You've been to college, or you're there now, or planning to go. It’s what’s expected in order to secure your social standing and your place in the creative class. If you've been, or if you follow higher ed, you also know that capital ‘C’ College is under a lot of scrutiny.
There’s cheating, sexual assault, grade inflation, and rising tuition. In America, $1.2 trillion in student loan debt is stifling young people’s creativity and options. Businesses complain that graduates are unprepared for the workforce. There’s a glut of PhDs, and the adjunctification of academic faculty dispels any illusion of universities as bastions of stable careers. Remedial classes don't work and lead students to drop out. Students drop out at unbelievable rates — 41% of first time college students don’t have a degree after 6 years. Colleges are tremendously sad, stressful places.
On top of all that, college classes aren't that good. Lectures aren't effective. Students forget what they learn each semester. Courses are boring, exams are stressful, and only 27% of grads end up in jobs related to their major.
Of course there are exceptions — brilliant teachers who care deeply about their students’ learning and have the skill and experience to deliver incredible courses. But that’s not the majority of classes.
But the point isn't that college is bad —
College can be fun — it can be a chance to explore interests and meet people who open up the world. Even bad classes aren't always a total loss. Some learning usually sticks, worldview widens, and the list of possible interests narrows. Besides, degree attainment correlates with lifetime earnings.
That’s less the case if you are not white or male, and the variation earnings is huge between and within fields of study. Big earners (with lots of letters after their names) pull up average earnings, despite some individuals without a high school diploma making more than those with doctoral or professional degrees.
Studies on college ROI don’t measure the dysphoria of college, or the increasing volatility of the job market. Averages ignore the lives of those with six figure student loan debt.
Moreover, studies have trouble accounting for students who might have succeeded regardless of college — there aren't real control groups to account for other factors. Smart people think that college is probably a good move, money-wise, especially if you get financial aid and study STEM.
— It’s not the most benefit for the cost.
Cheaper, better, happier, colleges would obviously be awesome. However, the trends all point the other way — more expensive, less guarantee of full employment, and no clear improvement in the quality of instruction.
College is enormously expensive — even if you personally don't foot the bill, someone does. Sometimes it’s mom and dad, sometimes it’s taxpayers, sometimes its the school or generous donors, and sometimes its you, through jobs and loans and soul-crushing debt. Online courses are often cheaper, but they are less effective than traditional classrooms.
There are new alternatives
And it’s not just online education. While tech is probably helping, online classes are depressingly similar to traditional college — lectures, readings, homework, now on a laptop.
Blended learning seems to be a win, but there is no consensus on online-only ed. MOOCs make great courses available to more people than ever, but most MOOC takers already have advanced degrees and when online courses replace traditional classrooms, students do worse.
The real experiential learning. Apprenticeship programs have been around, successful and cost-effective, for a long time. They are often mentioned as a key part of national education strategy. Still, ambitious young people do not dream of careers as pipe fitters, no matter how stable and rewarding those jobs might be.
No, the organizations that students will turn to as a college substitute will look more like Experience Institute, Thiel Fellowship, Uncollege, Echoing Green, Enstitute, and the Leap Year Project. These programs offer structured learning and growth without classrooms and teachers — and their promise of creative-class jobs after graduation comes with a significantly smaller price tag, if not free or compensated.
These programs work like a series of immersive internships and projects. Students are placed with real companies, doing real work, with supervision and guidance of mentors from the company and the organization. Programs provide a network of peers and professionals to learn from, structure for reflection, and the infrastructure for connecting students to the companies in the first place.
The recently sprouted plethora of development bootcamps (including Flatiron School, where I am happily employed) have had more concrete success creating learning opportunities that empower individuals to change their careers and impact the lives of others, but follow the same principles. Real work, not theory. Projects and teams instead of quizzes and term papers.
The experiential learning model isn't new — Peace Corps and Americorps have been training leaders for 50 and 22 years, respectively, and have long been launching grounds for careers in service. Legal and medical education have almost always included practical components, and MBA programs like MIT’s Sloan School are more and more a series of mini-internships.
How does it work?
Experiential programs are diverse, but they share a few key features in common:
1. They immerse students in real-world problems
2. They provide the tools and coaching to solve those problems
3. They surround students with peers and mentors
4. They cost way less — attendance is often free or compensated.
You probably had an internship, or worked a summer job. You know that, despite how tough or boring or exhausting, it was richer than many or all of your classes. While it didn't come with a credential, those habits of mind were ultimately more important to your success.
Employers recognize how much experience matters. In fact, internships and job experience far outweigh college reputation, gpa, and major in hiring decisions for recent grads. Five or ten years after college, your major means zilch compared to your experience.
Put simply, college is not the best learning you can get for the money.
Students in 2025 will probably still take some classes, but they will also likely spend half or more of their time in learning roles in different fields. Some will dedicate themselves to a particular field or even a particular company, spending maybe a few years learning and working as their education. Others will jump between companies, projects, and industries.
Kids who are in kindergarten now will intern three months at a design firm, take a two-month intensive class, travel a few weeks, spend six months in local government writing memos and helping citizens navigate bureaucracy, take on an independent project for a month with a few friends from the design firm, spend four months working with a big architecture firm, and on and on. Education will look more and more like the careers they will lead — piecemeal, entrepreneurial, interdisciplinary.
What It Means For Industry
More and more, the role of businesses in education will be providing better long-term internship and apprenticeship programs.
Already, companies with high-quality internship pipelines are realizing the benefits of more, better qualified entry level applicants, on top of the work over the span of the internship itself. The best qualified recent graduates have often completed several rounds of internships — that’s what qualifies them!
Companies work hard to cultivate relationships with universities, sponsoring scholarships and events, and donating to new projects, often with the explicit goal of recruiting top students.
More and more, companies will work with internship-based programs in addition to colleges and universities with traditional classrooms. This will involve creating internship opportunities outside of the summer months, and ones that last longer than 3 months.
6-month and 1-year internships and fellowships will likely become a standard feature of corporate recruiting practices, as well as a critical component of students’ educational careers.
But there is a caveat.
Paid internships are critical for equity.
Unpaid internships are often unfair and perpetuate inequality. As experience becomes central in education, we need to make sure that students from any background can afford to participate. That will look like living stipends and need-based scholarships and financial aid on top of paid work.
In part, the reason Americorps and the Peace Corps have been a pathway to middle class careers has been the living stipend they pay. Unpaid internships often look great on a resume, but students who need to work to pay for school cannot afford to participate.
Affordable, high quality education — and paid work experience — ought to be the norm. Not only is it more fair, but it also opens up positions to a broader pool of applicants. If you want the best applicants for your program, you can’t shut out all the students who need a paying gig.
What it means for you
If you haven't headed off to college yet, it’s worth your time to check out alternative paths. If you don’t get into a top school or get a great financial aid package, seriously think about taking a gap year, going into the workforce, or trying out an alternative education program like the ones mentioned above. Especially if you are thinking about taking on many thousands of dollars in debt to study liberal arts, there are so many cooler, enriching things to do with your time and money. For the cost of the degree, you could do a LOT of travel and reading. Think about it.
If you are in college now, figure out how to get yourself some real-world experience. If that means taking a semester or year or several off, that usually will help and not hurt you, especially if you find people to work with that you love, and/or work you are passionate about. Internships are obviously a big deal, but projects you work on outside of school can be powerful too — so long as they are solving real-world problems and you work your ass off.
If you are a successful young professional working person, consider internships and experience based programs as ways to switch careers or level up your skills without going back to school and paying for the next degree. I am biased, but some programming bootcamps have excellent track records for job placement after completion of the program, and salaries for software developers are pretty cushy.
If you're unemployed or underemployed or hate the work you do, think about what you can do to get yourself experience in the field you want to work in. Go ahead and cold-email recruiters to ask for full-time internships. Even if you don't have all the skills yet, dedicated pursuit of them is a good sign to employers, and involves seeking out those who have your ideal position to serve as mentors. I can't promise that you'll land an internship or get to live the life you dream of, but experience doesn't hurt.
If you are already burdened by the weight of your multiple advanced degrees, bully for you! You are probably in a position to point young people in the right direction. Support, guidance, and mentorship are hugely valuable, especially if you can point people towards meaningful, relevant projects. If you have interns or assistants or secretaries or employees beneath you on the ladder, do what you can to give them meaningful, interesting work that they will learn from.
If you are in education or corporate recruiting, think about what you can do to make learning meaningful and relevant for your students and interns. As much as you can, make the pathway to experience smooth and roadblock-free.
Also, whichever category you call home, get in touch if you have thoughts! I am not the only one who thinks about this. I'm sure I'm wrong about some things, so more voices = better!
What this means for everyone
Education will be increasingly relevant to career. Expensive, boring and unhappy classrooms will gradually go the way of the dodo, as they should. Exciting, diverse, career-relevant educational opportunities will become more normal.
Yo, but what will happen to the culture?
What about the amazing liberal arts classes that give life context, meaning, and time for reflection? Will we abandon art, history, philosophy, and our history of critical expression? Where will the eternal interns learn about resistance and activism? Where will they read poetry and learn hard truths about gender and race and the failures of capitalism?
What about all those contingent faculty? And the tenure track? How will experiential education create a just world, where students of all backgrounds have equitable access to opportunity?
The portrait I'm painting doesn't have clear answers to these questions.
Now, this won't be the first time we've made major moves away from our educational tradition — we haven't studied the trivium and quadrivium for a while now. If it weren't part of a degree, it would be hard to justify $3000 dollars for a 14-week course on Shakespeare, whatever the meaning and value and connection to literary tradition.
Still, it is hard to imagine that nothing would be lost, if all higher education were replaced by Unschools. Hopefully, change will be measured, gradual enough so we don’t lose the many parts of schools and scholarship that are worth keeping.
All told, cheaper, more relevant education will be a good thing — I am excited to see it happen. As with all big transitions, there are legitimate concerns about the change happens and who it will benefit. Recognizing what’s coming, we can shape it into something great for people, not just capitalistically inevitable!
Thanks to those who helped me write and edit!