Adam Braun recently performed a task that was pure pleasure. He personally called every applicant accepted by his startup school, MissionU, to deliver the good news: "You're in!"

No leader of a traditional academic institution would do that, of course. But for Braun, the job is still manageable. MissionU, a for-profit based in San Francisco, has just 25 students in its first class, which the company calls a "cohort." But those 25 were culled from among 4,700 applications. "We have less than a 1 percent acceptance rate. Harvard has about 5 percent," says Braun. He projects the school will enroll several thousand students by 2020, and tens of thousands sometime beyond that.

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MissionU, which is unaccredited, offers a one-year program that takes a deep dive into disciplines in high demand by employers, such as data analytics and business intelligence, while also teaching work skills like collaboration and critical thinking. Among alternative-education startups, it offers a singularly tantalizing proposition. First, there are no upfront tuition fees. A student owes nothing until he or she has landed a job paying at least $50,000 annually, at which point MissionU collects 15 percent of that student's salary for three years. "The average college student pays back their loans for 21 years," says Braun. "In our case, the most is 36 months."

Second, Braun has partnered with some of the tech world's most desirable employers, who directly influence the curriculum. MissionU staff members meet regularly with hiring managers and department leaders at companies like Warby Parker, Lyft, Birchbox, Spotify, Casper, Harry's and Bonobos. Based on partners' input about their work force needs, the school identifies majors, recruits instructors, and shapes lessons. Partners are also developing teachable case studies in tandem with MissionU and will field guest speakers and mentors for its programs. In exchange those companies get first crack at recruiting MissionU's graduating talent.

Such collaboration between the business and academic communities "is critical, and it is missing in this country," says Tony Wagner, a senior research fellow at Harvard University's Learning Policy Institute and an advisor to MissionU. "More and more companies are saying, 'What is that diploma that you have? It is not a certificate of mastery. It is a certificate of seat time served.'"

MissionU, says Wagner, is teaching the skills "that are critical to adult success."

An alternative path for 'career starters.'

MissionU's founder is a 33-year-old social entrepreneur who started life as a hungry capitalist. By middle school, Braun had settled on a career path (investment banker) and a life goal (billionaire). At 16 he got a summer job at a hedge fund.

Braun's change-the-world impulse kicked in during his sophomore year at Brown. While traversing four continents for a Semester at Sea, he observed privation first-hand. Opportunity in the form of education, he concluded, was the best weapon against poverty. In 2008, Braun launched Pencils of Promise, a nonprofit that to date has built more than 400 schools across the developing world.

When Braun traveled around the country telling university students about his experience, often they opened up about their own educations. "Students were saying, 'I don't feel like what I am learning in the classroom is connected to what I'm going to have to demonstrate in the real world to secure the job of my dreams,' " says Braun. Another problem Braun heard was that " 'I am taking on such huge loans that I don't know if I will ever crawl out from under them.' "

Then things got personal. In 2015, Braun became engaged to Tehillah Voslevitz, an interior designer who had left college because of financial hardship. "She had more than $100,000 in student debt and did not have a bachelor's degree," says Braun. "The toll that was taking on her life was absolutely crippling."

In subsequent research, Braun learned that U.S. student loan debt exceeds $1.3 trillion (according to the New York Federal Reserve) and is the only form of debt that cannot be discharged through bankruptcy. Further, only 19 percent of students who enroll in traditional colleges finish in the allotted four years, according to the nonprofit research and advocacy group Complete College America.


Braun envisioned MissionU as an alternative for what he calls "career starters," people between the ages of 19 and 29 who want the quickest path possible to a good job with the smallest upfront outlay. The closest option available had been technology boot camps, such as Hack Reactor and Galvanize, which charge tuition. For example, FlatIron School, perhaps the best known, is a highly selective 15-week program with a 98.5 percent placement rate that costs $15,000. Free online programs such as CodeAcademy are not designed to funnel students directly to well-paying jobs.

Sensing an opportunity, Braun found a new CEO for Pencils of Promise and raised a $3 million seed round led by First Round Capital. Recruiting marquee corporate partners posed little problem. Pencils of Promise had grown up alongside many of the era's hottest companies, some of which had run promotions in support of its cause. Over the years Braun had become friends with entrepreneurs like Neil Blumenthal of Warby Parker and Hayley Barna of Birchbox.

And his proposition resonated with growth-company leaders whose talent pipelines are never sufficiently full. "My co-founders and I still spend 25 percent of our time interviewing and recruiting," says Neil Parikh, co-founder and COO of the online mattress company Casper, an early MissionU partner. "Anything that gives us preferential access to smart people, we want to be involved with first.

"There are a lot of technical jobs for which a four-year degree is not necessarily required," says Parikh. "So long as you have the emotional maturity and the technical skills, you can be a great fit and an immediate value add. So this could be awesome."

Competency over credentials.

Of the 4,500 applicants for MissionU's first cohort, 17 percent have bachelor's degrees. The rest, says Braun, have "varying levels of college experience" but believe they cannot afford or will not benefit from continuing to graduation. The school's application process comprises online problem-solving exercises, an interview, an essay, and a group challenge that includes a presentation and self and peer assessments.

The program is divided into three sections, two of which take place in live virtual classrooms. In the first, students learn what Braun calls "foundation skills," such as project management, business writing, and teamwork. Next comes a deep dive into students' majors, which are taught by domain experts currently or recently working in the industry. Based on feedback from MissionU's corporate partners, the first class will focus on data analytics, a subject where "competency is valued more than credentials," says Braun.

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In the final section, students break into teams for internships, chiefly at small companies and nonprofits that need the help. (Partner companies may also offer internships. Parikh says Casper would like to do so.) Much of that work will also occur virtually, but some will be done on-site. Throughout the year, students will also meet in person with their classmates at partner companies' campuses or in collaborative workspaces. To facilitate that interaction, students are required to live within 50 miles of their cohort's base. The first base, not surprisingly is the Bay Area.

Braun says the company will scale by adding regions, majors, and start dates. The first cohort of 25 students begins classes in September, the second in January, and the third in May. Braun hopes to soon launch multiple cohorts simultaneously and more often.

Braun says MissionU's partners will have "preferred access" to hire from a student body poised to hit the ground running. Graduating cohorts will have something else prized in technical fields: diversity. Braun expects the school's no-money-down model to attract socioeconomic groups that are underrepresented on traditional campuses.

"There are a lot of people whose opportunities have been cut short because of financial reasons or who have worked various jobs but had no real chance to build a career," says Braun. "But they are smart and they are motivated. This can help them get well-paying jobs where they are happy."