Derek Magill was a classics major who studied Latin in his free time. He went to school to learn about and discuss big ideas—not simply to find a job. Despite being a model liberal arts student, Magill ended up dropping out.
Magill explains that he dropped out because he wasn’t getting anything out of his liberal arts classes, because the other students only seemed interested in the degree, and because the professors didn’t seem to understand the value of the subjects they were teaching.
It’s not difficult to find people complaining about the value of college. One survey of college graduates found that two in five don’t see their college degree as worth the money. In a similar vein, a study by Kaplan found that only one in five parents believe that the cost of college is worth the return. And the numbers don’t lie. A somewhat dated report by Goldman-Sachs found that most students have to work up to nine years before they manage to break even on the money they spent getting their degree.
The numbers suggest that students and parents may be voting with their feet when it comes to determining the value of college. While the cause remains elusive, one report claims that 58 percent of colleges have seen enrollment fall since 2013.
But what alternative is there for students who either don’t rate the expense as worth the reward or who find the quality of the college experience lacking? One answer seems to be the startup where Magill is the Director of Marketing: Praxis.
In short, Praxis is an education startup where young people, from high school and college graduates to college dropouts, go to transition into the workforce.
Participants in the one-year long Praxis program go through a six month boot-camp that includes workshops on professional writing, marketing and interviewing, among other professional skills. There are no grades and no transcripts, but there is feedback.
As part of the program, participants go through a thirty day period during which they write and publish something every day. In an interview, Magill explained to me that this exercise helps to cultivate a “forward tilt mindset” which is a recognition that “you might not be told what to do every day, so you need to figure it out and come up with things that you can do that are valuable for other people and [your] company.”
The goal is that at the end of their time in the program, participants will have acquired professional skills, accustomed themselves to producing something on a daily basis, and produced a valuable record of their work.
Asked how Praxis participants answer the age-old question that relatives ask at Christmas: “How’s school?” Magill quipped: “My goal is to convince people…to not let their degree status be the most interesting thing about them.”
Instead of checking off a list of degree requirements, Praxis participants are encouraged to work on projects of personal interest that also create value for others. There are no writing prompts to guide them or topics assigned to them. Participants have to decide what projects to take on by themselves.
By contrast, learning in universities is often a much more standardized experience in which students work on projects chiefly of interest to academics and learn to produce work that is acceptable to professors—not necessarily appreciable by employers or the public.
Magill explained that in their training on professional writing, participants often receive feedback designed to help them “unschool” their writing. For example, participants are encouraged to use “I” in their professional writing even though the use of “I” is often discouraged in academic writing.
Teaching young people productive habits and helping them prepare for the workforce is traditionally the job of colleges. That a private company is also doing that job is not that controversial. But Praxis sees its goal as bigger than skills training for the workforce, claiming: “All graduates leave the program fully equipped for a fulfilling life and career.”
Asked to explain this claim, Magill pointed out “We think ideas are so important that they shouldn’t be relegated to a classroom or an ivory tower. They should be…practiced and preached and discussed in the real world every day. I don’t create a distinction between a fulfilling life and fulfilling career, you know, the products you produce and the value you create, that is what leads to a fulfilling life…” Writers at The Undercurrent have argued something similar before.
A shot at both a fulfilling life and career is a benefit traditionally touted by liberal arts programs, which have become threatened of late, as parents urge students to avoid them and legislators threaten to cut funding—often because they believe such programs do not prepare students for careers.
Praxis participants make their way into the workforce during the second half of the year-long program. For six months, they are placed in an apprenticeship at a startup where they gain real experience, doing more than making coffee runs and sorting files. According to the Praxis website, ninety-eight percent of graduates are offered a position when they complete the program.
Even the cost compares favorably. Praxis claims it’s net zero, because although tuition is $11,000 for the year, apprentices earn more than that during their time at a startup.
While the cost of college is undoubtedly a problem, it’s Magill’s story of dropping out that is a cautionary anecdote for institutions of higher learning and liberal arts programs in particular. Defenders of college (and liberal arts programs) have long claimed that the real value of college is intangible, that you can’t quantify the value of being exposed to big ideas or the opportunity to discuss those ideas with your fellow students, that you can’t weigh the value of a degree based solely on the job it will get you.
But if liberal arts programs can’t even deliver for students who come to college to discuss ideas, who accept the value of a liberal education, and who are willing to brave student debt and the job market when they graduate; how will they deliver for students who are motivated by more practical concerns?
The answer isn’t clear. The college experience is probably far from finished, but the numbers on enrollment and notable stories of dissatisfaction suggest that universities should probably take note of the success of programs like Praxis and learn from them.