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  • Alex Cates

Building a Project-Based University

Updated: Jul 21, 2020



I continually see calls that we need to reform college. College used to be seen as a way out, and for many it still is. But as with anything, once the metric of success became whether or not you went to college, the system optimized for it. Now 63% of people go to college, 69% of them take out a student loan, with an average of $29,000 of debt. With the rise of online education, people are questioning more and more if college is actually worth it.


While I am firmly in the camp that it is for most people, that does not mean it is above reproach or above updating.


The industry of College has ballooned, and it is threatening to pop. Just look at these projections, with some saying as many as 50% of colleges will close in the next decade. It has already started, with 60+ colleges going under in the last 3 years and their campuses being put up for sale. The recent pandemic will only accelerate this as colleges lose billions in revenue from tuition and housing costs and students question whether paying for the college experience is worth it if all you get are online classes from your home.


Again, I am in support of college (I am currently working on a Ph.D.). I think the freedom it allows, to get out of the house and grow as an individual in a controlled environment. To surround yourself with like-minded individuals. To be able to experiment, mentally and socially, with limited repercussions. Along with the ability to learn skills and to gain access to a network. All of these are valuable and should be maintained.


At the same time, the model of college has changed. Everyone can offer you an education and only a few (say the top 100 at most) can actually differentiate based on education (even if students cant tell the difference when they are applying). Many schools are trying to differentiate in other ways, such as with sports, dining services, or living quarters. All of these are fluff in my opinion. Sure they are great, and I am sure some schools will be able to differentiate with them, but again the numbers are limited. The problem though is that the schools need to recruit students. And make no mistake, the applicants hold the power here.


But in the end, what do you want from college? I go back to the goals I mentioned earlier. A place to grow and experiment without fear of major consequences. You should be able to try something, fail, get back up, and try again. This is true for most of your 20's but it is especially true as you transition from high school to the workforce (which is really what college is designed to allow).


Below I want to propose a new kind of college. One that keeps these aspects, takes advantage of (not hides from) the online learning opportunities, and not only provides an environment where you can experiment but encourages it!


1. Project focused


This brings me to the title image. Everyone has certain interests that inspire them. Why not lean into these? We tell everyone to follow your passion and to do what you love. Why don't we actually allow college to really emphasize this? To me, this starts with student-led projects. Every semester, students should be required to create something, a small project that would be equivalent to a little less than a senior thesis. Professors would help guide this, but every student should end the semester with a product.


This approach creates a few interesting opportunities, for instance:


What if every STEM student had to do a replication project? The replication crisis is a favorite buzzword, but the inherent problem is that the system does not reward replication. Well what if those replications were used as training, students work on a problem they are interested in, and the steps are (or at least should be) laid out for them via the paper. This removes the fear that they would design an inherently flawed study due to inexperience. It would give them hands-on experience both learning the logic of a study, but conducting the study. And in the end, they would have made a legitimate contribution to science!


Writers need practice writing, so what if they created a short story and then used Amazon's self-publishing options to freely publish it as an ebook? Now all of a sudden you have real experience writing and have an online product that you can go and promote. Alternatively, maybe they start a blog?


Business and economics, produce an outline of your favorite companies business strategy. Create a marketing plan for a new product. Build a pitch that you have to send to a competition at the end (maybe something like Pioneer)


Computer science majors are constantly producing little projects, but what if they were organized.


What if we partnered with non-profits so that students had to design marketing plans, apps, etc for different projects, almost like Kaggle for other skills? Not only would the students gain real-world experience but they would have actual marketable experience by the end.


2. Keep the classes, change the number and focus


I am a mostly self-taught programmer. I have taken 2 computer science classes now in my life, the first was an introduction to python and the second was a 300 level machine learning class 5 years later. In between, all of my development came from self-learning, working on problems, and slowly building my skills through a lot of trial and error. This is not uncommon in the programming world, but why can't the same model be applied elsewhere?


Classes should therefore really focus on the basics you need so that you "know enough to be dangerous" and then students should explore what is possible. Classes should also make sure there is enough time to focus on their projects, say 1/3 of a student's time is class and 2/3 is project-focused.


3. Keep a liberal arts education


I want to be clear, that I am not proposing early specialization. Quite to the contrary, I think early specialization is dangerous, as captured in the book Range. People should constantly experiment on different projects before focusing later in life. Students need the experiences from different industries (or majors) and to be able to apply a standard approach in one industry to another where the concept is unheard of.


I can almost picture a schedule where you take your broad basics class one semester than transition into a project on that subject the next semester. While you are completing your project, you are also taking your required broad basics class. Maybe students will be required to complete class/projects in a few different broad areas (math, science, writing, programming, business, art, public speaking), all the while leaving the subject matter flexible to allow students to have their project still focused on what might interest them.


4. Keep the social aspect


I would still argue that this proposal should be kept as a campus-focused ideal. There is a lot to be gained from the social aspects of college, and this would only increase with projects which may require teams working together.


College is also a place where many people find life long friends and form the core of their network. These networks are established not in the classroom but in the extracurriculars. Playing sports, participating in clubs, or simply eating together. The best versions of this combine people with a diverse set of interests. I would not want to lose this aspect of college and I think any approach should still keep this idea in mind.


5. Utilize alternative funding opportunities


Funding is always an issue. Student loans are destroying students. But there are a couple of alternatives and opportunities that I would hope this a new university could take advantage of.


First is Income Sharing Agreements (ISA's). While these are really just student loans in a different form, they do offer an alternative to student loans.


Second, a startup incubator. Look at the success of programs such as y-combinator. People are brimming with ideas. By keeping the school project focused and teaching how the tools necessary for creating a business, you could imagine the student projects being treated as a startup incubator which the school would naturally have some equity in every company that comes out of it.


Third grants. Ph.D. students are paid to take classes and do research. I am not claiming that undergraduates provide the same value as a Ph.D. student, but I am confident that there is a model where we could offset the expenses of housing and feeding students with grant funding, after all, every student will now complete some sort of contribution to research, the volume will provide the value.


Finally, normal tuition. I am not saying we won't take normal tuition. Hopefully, the costs would be less than the $70k+ of some schools, but I can't say I know for sure.


These are my thoughts, I don't know if they truly make sense or not, but they are a different approach in a world where we need to try something different. Education is changing and we don't know what will take its place. But given the benefits of a project-based education, and the opportunities available right now, why not try something different?

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