Features

September/October 2014 Is the Master’s Degree an Expensive Anachronism?

For legions of new college graduates struggling to find good jobs in a weak labor market, “boot camps” are a faster and cheaper alternative to traditional grad school.

By Kevin Carey


Code of conduct: Programming and web design students at General Assembly learn by doing. Credit: Courtesy of General Assembly.

Washington, D.C., is a college town. Georgetown, American, Catholic, Howard, and George Washington Universities all have sprawling campuses with dorms, lecture halls, athletic fields, and tens of thousands of students. But one of the most interesting higher education organizations in D.C. has none of those things. It’s called General Assembly. The entire “campus” is located on one end of the eighth floor of an office building on 15th Street, in a space that looks like a Silicon Valley startup, complete with cappuccino machines and lots of youngish people pecking away on their MacBooks. It’s like the whole university is the student lounge.

The differences don’t stop there. GA uses a business and learning model that departs radically from established colleges and universities. Instead of enrolling in the expensive one- and two-year master’s degrees that are increasingly becoming the norm for people trying to find a foothold in the job market, students at General Assembly’s twelve campuses in America, Europe, Australia, and Asia take intense, eight- to twelve-week programs in high-demand fields like computer programming and designing the user experience for high-traffic commercial websites. The goal isn’t to teach them everything they need to know to be great in a job. The goal is to teach them just enough to start a career. Because when it comes to learning and work, the most important thing is work itself.

To enroll, students go through a job interview-like process designed to gauge their commitment to the $9,500 course.* Many for-profit colleges will accept virtually anyone who can sign their name on federal student loan documents. The worst for-profits simply pass students through, imparting virtually no useful skills. GA doesn’t take federal aid. The first page of its application says, “In addition to the 9am-5pm class time, you will spend 10+ hours a week building your portfolio and honing your skill set outside of class. Do you anticipate any barriers that would prevent you from devoting this time to the program?”

Kate Tikoian, one of the students taking the user experience (UX) course in the D.C. office this spring, is a D.C. native who studied Spanish at Emory University. She left in 2002, moved back to her hometown, and became a self-taught IT person for a series of firms. But she wanted to do something more creative and fulfilling, and that would require skills she couldn’t pick up on her own.

In her first week in the course, Kate and a partner student presented one another with a problem to solve by designing a mobile app. Kate’s partner and her spouse had recently moved in with her father-in-law, which meant that their household now had two, sometimes overlapping and redundant, weekly grocery lists. Kate’s solution was to create an app called Already Got Spinach, a home pantry manager that generated automated shopping lists based on unavailable food.

Kate conducted “user interviews” with family members to get more specific information on their shopping habits, created “user flow” analyses that tracked how people would progress through the application, and sketched out app designs. This led to “concept mapping,” a synthesis of the visuals and the user experience, a prototype app on paper, and then usability testing. The results were then presented to the rest of the class. All of this was done in the first four days of the course. The rest of the UX class was built around a series of projects, each taking students in greater depth into skills like researching user preferences, designing friendly, intuitive interfaces, prototyping and testing products, and working with teams and clients.

The UX course was project based because skills are acquired through practice. While some theory is important, learning to work does not primarily involve the accumulation of facts and abstract concepts—unless, as with traditional academic subjects like history, dealing with facts and abstract concepts is the actual job. Reporters become better reporters by reporting, with the guidance of an editor. Chefs become better chefs by cooking. If you want to learn UX design, pick a problem and get started with an experienced UX designer looking on.

The UX students come to General Assembly every day during the week, where they split their time between attending classes taught by industry experts, working on projects in teams, and studying on their own. The atmosphere is quiet, informal, and collaborative, with a lot of huddling around laptops and sketching out ideas with markers on whiteboards. Nights and weekends are spent refining projects and working online. The educational model itself is not particularly dependent on technology. Much of the learning takes place as students and faculty interact in person.

The course length and intense workload are also no accident. There’s a reason the Marine Corps doesn’t send fresh recruits straight to the front lines: they need basic training. But there’s also a reason boot camp takes only twelve weeks—not coincidentally, the length of the longest course at GA and many of its competitors. Marines don’t leave Parris Island with the full complement of knowledge and skill needed to be the best soldier they can ever be. They leave with enough knowledge and skill to make a positive contribution to the organization, and to get started learning everything else they need on the job.

Ron Lin, chief technology officer and co-founder of the prepaid Visa card company Card.com, says he likes to hire GA graduates because they represent “the convergence of aptitude and commitment.” He knows that the admissions process selects for students willing to do demanding work. And because the project-focused GA curriculum produces a detailed portfolio of work that is easily displayed electronically, he can evaluate candidates’ skills and abilities directly. In the end, he said, “whether or not someone has a college degree is predictive of certain things, but it’s not the primary qualification. I want to know: What do you know? What have you done? How do you work?”

Lin isn’t the only one who thinks this way. According to the company’s self-reported statistics, over 90 percent of students get a job within three months of graduation. The number of GA graduates increased from 3,000 in 2013 to a projected 8,000 in 2014.

Ron Lin’s three questions have become incredibly important for young adults struggling to launch their careers. General Assembly and companies like it live in the growing chasm between the end of college and the beginning of meaningful work, a gap that exists because neither colleges nor businesses are willing to give students the training they need.

The legions of new college graduates struggling to find good jobs in a weak labor market are living in the aftermath of a historical economic transformation. When modern colleges were created in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the economy was largely composed of agriculture and manufacturing. The Industrial Revolution created huge firms and sectors dedicated to mass production. Companies competed by becoming more efficient at making better things for less money. The nature of work was, within a given field, predictable and narrowly defined by the processes of production.

Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation.

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