An innovative “startup” college focusing on computer science instruction makes an attractive offer to students who enroll: Tuition is free if they don’t find a job making at least $60,000 when they graduate.

With student debt growing at an exponential rate, could this move put pressure on traditional colleges and universities to somehow counter?

Launched in 2014 as an alternative to a four-year college degree, San Francisco’s Make School announced in November that its bachelor’s degree in Applied Computer Science is now the first program of its kind to be accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, which accredits traditional colleges such as Stanford, UC Berkeley, and the California Institute of Technology.

Make School co-founders Jeremy Rossmann and Ashu Desai both fell in love with coding while attending progressive high schools and getting to work on projects with a real-world impact—and both were disappointed by their college experience.

“I felt the innovations I had experienced in my K-12 education hadn’t made their way to the college level, and the education I was getting wasn’t aligned with what students needed in the industry,” says Desai.

Desai and Rossmann were teaching high school and college students how to build apps during a summer coding program, while at the same time thinking about issues such as access, affordability, and relevance in higher education, when they decided to form their own college program.

“We thought: How could we redesign college for students who are passionate about programming?” Desai says.

Make School’s instruction is built on four cornerstones: a liberal arts background (learning how to be good citizens), character development (learning skills such as grit and inclusivity), computer science foundations (learning problem solving and computational thinking), and practical software engineering (including project management). The bachelor’s degree program culminates with students building their own software program.

The college uses what Desai calls a “high-touch instructional model.” Each student is assigned a coach to help keep them on track. The instructional periods are 90 minutes long, with the first 20 minutes spent on instruction and the remainder on project-based learning.

“We find really high levels of engagement,” Desai says. “Students are building something they’re passionate about.”

The college’s most innovative aspect, however, is its deferred tuition model, in which students can pay with the earnings they receive from their first job.

Upon enrollment, students sign an income-sharing agreement in which they promise to pay the college 20 percent of their income for 60 months after they graduate—but only if they land a job paying at least $60,000 a year.

“We make sure we’re on the hook for student success,” Desai says.

To back up this guarantee, the college has formed partnerships with more than 30 Silicon Valley employers, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Etsy, and Lyft. These industry partners are invited to the college for “demo days,” in which students present the software projects they’ve been working on.

Partners have the first opportunity to recruit Make School students as interns and full-time employees—and they also guide student growth through mentorships and guest lectures. In addition, they provide feedback on the college’s curriculum to make sure it remains relevant to students’ needs.

Make School’s income-sharing agreement model appears to be meeting its goal of making college more accessible: 45 percent of the college’s graduates are students of color, Desai says.

What lessons can Make School provide for more traditional institutions of higher learning? “Listen to the needs of students and employers,” he says, “and figure out a way to have more skin in the game.”

About the Author:

A former eCampus News editor, Dennis Pierce is now a freelance writer with more than 20 years of experience in writing about educational innovation.

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