Scene one: I needed a haircut and someone suggested I go across the street to the Aveda Institute. Fine. My hair was cut by a student who was grateful to be working on a regular person, not a manikin. She had another six months in training to before she could become a certified cosmetologist with a credential to work at any salon, cosmetics counter, or spa in the country. It was my first exposure to this institution that was founded initially as a cosmetics line.
Scene two: I met a brilliant young woman with top scores and a great chance for admission to a top college. Her goal from childhood had been to become a physician. Then one day she realized that this future actually sounded miserable. She didn’t want to hang out in dingy operating rooms, struggling with bureaucracy. What she really loved was hair, makeup, and fashion. Why not follow her dream? Instead of college, she enrolled in the Aveda Institute. She can’t be happier.
Scene three: I’m getting my haircut somewhere else and I ask the lady cutting my hair where she moved from. Washington, D.C., came the answer. How did she end up cutting hair here? It was closest to her house that she bought in Atlanta because she liked the neighborhood and the house was affordable. So she could choose to work anywhere she wanted? Yep. Why? She graduated from Aveda, which is the best credential she can have in this industry.
So I’m thinking about this. Here is a school (there are dozens around the country) at which enrollment lasts about one year and costs between $15-20K to attend. This compares to the four years and $100-400K you will spend on a college degree. Many people who leave college are lost and confused, with few skills, no work experience, and no network to tap into for jobs. Aveda graduates have real skills, can work anywhere, and tap into a vast network.
It was the first I’ve heard of this school. The more I look at it, the more it seems inevitable that such models are going to replace college for many people in the years ahead. It makes no sense to spend all that time and money getting a degree that has marginal benefit in the job marketplace. Yes, it is necessary if you are pursuing a career in medicine, law, accounting, engineering, or academia.
That accounts for a small percentage of people who pay for college degrees. We keep hearing about how a college education is connected with higher earning power but the cause and effect relationship here is complicated at best. Some people argue that it is entirely illusory. Meanwhile, real-life experience in fields outside those requiring college credentials is showing something very different.
Meanwhile, Aveda seems to be thriving, and its students and graduates seem very happy, with as much upward mobility as they desire. The one in Atlanta that I visited was teeming with male and female students, all working very hard to master a trade. There are others in New York, D.C., Chicago, Nashville, and many other parts of the country.
I thought I could easily do some research on when these schools started and how many people attend them. Not so. Not even the Wikipedia entry on Aveda mentions their highly successful training programs. It seems to be flying beneath the radar, growing based on industry reputation alone. I’m sure their products are great, but the schooling is the disruptive innovation here.
Scene four: I was invited to attend a data science meetup in Atlanta. It was held at the headquarters for the General Assembly, which is a training camp for the management of digital properties. The meetup was fun, but what really stood out was the very existence of this institution. General Assembly teaches front-end development, project management, beginner website creation, social media skills, and high-level coding. Their classes range from one evening to three months. The pricing of the service depends on the class. The resulting credential is impressive on the resume, and, like Aveda, you tap into a vast network of people.
Unlike the typical university, General Assembly seeks close connections with the surrounding business community. They host socials a few times per week. They bring in business leaders and technicians to give lectures. Many of the teachers here are actually workers in real world enterprises around town. General Assembly is there to facilitate an exchange of knowledge between practitioners and aspirational workers.
It turns out that there are other such institutions in town, including Iron Yard. And around the country there are Code Camps. The tech industry is the fastest moving and among the most profitable in the country, so it makes sense that the industry would demand actual credentials and skills, none of which are provided by the stodgy old-world institutions of colleges and universities.
The tech industry may have given rise not only to all the wonderful new technologies that have changed our lives so fundamentally but also to a new form of education itself. These camps could point the way toward a new path after high school. Why precisely should a person spend yet another four years sitting in a desk, listening to a lecturer, when he or she could be working while training and getting better at a skill for which there is a real market demand?
We all know people in their twenties who look back at their college years and wonder why it all happened. For many of them, the time they took off to get their degree was misspent. Many graduated without any real awareness that jobs actually do require people to bring value to the firm. No one is going to pay for an undergraduate degree. Employers pay for services rendered, not a resume. The only purpose of the resume is to signal the highest likelihood of success at doing a real job.
Stay in School?
For a very long time, young people have been told that the key to success is to “stay in school.” But what happens when life experience begins to tell them the opposite? Or perhaps the definition of what constitutes school needs to change. Work can be school. Education can be combined with work. Education should be structured not just to impart abstract “knowledge,” but actual know-how. And what if it turns out that doing things differently also turns out to be more fun in any case, not to mention more financially rewarding?
By analogy: for generations, Americans were also told that the single greatest and safest investment they could ever make was to buy a house. That illusion blew up in 2008. Now people see houses for what they are: good for some purposes, bad for others, and by no means a guarantee of high future income.
So it is for college. The difference is that most people don’t know it yet. Meanwhile, these many institutions offering real training for the real world are thriving as never before.