Make School, Meet Crossfit

Beginning this fall, higher education startup Make School, will begin offering a fully accredited bachelor’s degree in Computer Science. But will accreditation unlock new opportunities, or merely slow Make School down?

Y Combinator, or YC for short, is one of the most successful startup incubators in the world, with famous graduates such as Airbnb, Dropbox, and Instacart. However, YC has graduated only a handful of companies offering education and training in higher education, including: Lambda School, NexGenT, Fullstack Academy, and Make School.

As with Lambda School, which I’ve written about here, Make School is at the vanguard of Transparent Education, a trend where schools provide complete transparency around tuition cost and employment prospects after graduation. However, while its YC peers have largely pursued technology training programs that last between 6 to 9 months, Make School has decided to offer full fledged bachelor’s degrees, which take its students 2 to 3 years to complete. Their vision is to combine top-tier computer science training with a broad-based education that includes courses in writing, design, personal finance, and economics, to produce a bachelor’s degree that is “the future of higher education”.

A Cheaper, Faster, 100% Certified College Degree

Make School is pursuing innovation of the traditional bachelor’s degree along three vectors: cost, time, and accreditation. Make School has a lower cost structure than traditional colleges because its faculty aren’t tenured and may not have a PhD. From a time perspective, they are attempting to have students complete their college degree in 2 years, including summers. (Students will take the same number of credit hours as traditional college students, but those credit hours will be condensed into 2 calendar years vs. 4 academic years with summer breaks.) The final innovation, if they can pull it off, will be to have their accelerated degree accredited, providing legitimacy to a program that might otherwise be derided as “just another coding bootcamp”.

Earlier this month, Make School announced that they think they can pull off the accreditation feat, and from the same governing body that accredits Stanford University, no less. Accomplishing this task has been extremely time intensive. Make School has been pursuing accreditation for the last three years, will submit their formal application this fall, and expects to complete the process within 2 years. Even this “short” time span of 5 years was only enabled by pursuing a new “incubation model” in partnership with Dominican University of California.

Degrees vs. Jobs

Choosing to endure the painful process of becoming accredited is one of the factors that separates Make School from other higher ed startups. This is because Make School has a different notion of what the goal of higher education should be. Make School is focused on producing the highest quality, lowest cost, degree for their students. Their peers are focused on the least expensive, most direct way to produce jobs for their students.

We already know that employers, from IBM to small startups, will hire programmers without college degrees. For proof, look no further than Lambda School’s list of hiring partners. On the other hand, as I’ve written about before, companies seeking and hiring applicants without college degrees are still the exception, not the rule. By choosing to pursue innovation around the college degree itself, Make School has essentially made a bet that college degrees will be important for the long-term.

But, important to who? Employers, or student?

When you take a closer look at Make School’s decision, they had feedback “from prospective students and parents — especially those with backgrounds underrepresented in tech — that a bachelor’s degree still held weight for them, their families, and their communities, even if employers no longer demanded it.” (My emphasis). What’s fascinating here is that Make School’s bet is more specific: they are betting on students and parents continuing to choose a college degree, even if employers no longer require it for computer science job applicants.

The Return of Signal-to-Skills Theory

Last week, I wrote about an idea called Signal-to-Skills theory, which predicts that the more technical skill required in an industry, the more important knowledge, skills, and tools will be to employers, compared to whether or not you can “signal” that you have a degree. The theory looks like this:

s2sedu

What Make School’s announcement indicates is that the demand for bachelor’s degrees is really composed of two parts: employers and students. Employers, at least in computer science, are clearly trending against credentials and in favor of skills. On the other hand, prospective students and their parents, still find value in the credential itself.

The question for Make School then is whether the different demand preferences of employers and students is something fundamental, or whether one group is just further up the “Value of Skills” curve compared to the other? 

My hypothesis is that the preferences of students and parents are lagging indicators, especially parents. What this means is that students and parents are placing value on a college degree that no longer matches the value of the degree in the job market. If this hypothesis is true, then at some point in the future, students and parents will update their preferences, and will place a much lower emphasis on the degree itself, versus the outcome of the degree: a job.

Crossfit

Which brings me to Crossfit. Yes, Crossfit. As in, the workout gyms and fitness competitions that have seen radical growth in the personal health space over the last 10 years. The Crossfit Games, a fitness competition organized by the founders of Crossfit, is famous for putting its contestants through grueling workouts throughout the course of the competition. In one such workout, called The Murph, contestants have to do a huge number of push ups, pull ups, and squats, while running a mile both before and after the workout.

Oh, and they have to wear a 20 pound vest the entire time.

Murph Workout.JPG

Make School’s Murph

The unknown for everyone is higher education is how long the college credential will be a “thing”…an idea and concept that you can bet on for the long-term. In the end, every startup, Community College, and University is long or short the “degree”, depending on the choices they make about their educational offering to students. Make School has clearly signaled that they are “long” the bachelor’s degree, and that is fine. The degree may very well last another 10 or 20 years, which is plenty long enough for Make School to have some type of financial exit for its investors.

On the other hand, if you want to go “long” the bachelor’s degree, why do it in Computer Science, an industry that is clearly “short” the college degree, with more and more employers using skills-based hiring to source job candidates? Furthermore, why slow down your product iteration cycle, even a little bit, to conform to the standards and process of the credentialing agencies? It seems in some ways that Make School is at the intersection of a team that is awesome at teaching Computer Science, and students with outdated educational preferences. The result is a product that seems innovative for traditional higher ed, but somehow outdated in Computer Science.

Ultimately, I am hugely supportive of every startup in higher ed, Make School included. We need more experiments for improving higher ed, and this is one of them. If Make School accomplished nothing more than getting some colleges to accelerate their coursework from 4 years to 2 years, that would be a huge, positive change.

On the other hand, in the competition to grow, scale, and achieve a Silicon Valley level of success, it’s possible that Make School has just put on a 20 pound vest.

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Micah

Micah is the author of Rethink the MBA. He works and lives in Silicon Valley.