All Commentary
Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Difference Praxis Makes

An alternative to college is poised to disrupt traditional higher ed

The model seems so obvious now that I’ve seen it in operation. I’ve spent a day and a half with the incoming class of Praxis, a start-up company that is providing an answer to the problem that everyone complains about but few have sought to solve. What I saw was inspiring and wonderful in every way. These are some very lucky participants; each one is special, and they know it, too.

This was a retreat to begin their new adventure in a one-year college-replacement program that combines learning and work. In the time I was there, the students heard from real entrepreneurs about the challenges of start-ups. They received an overview of the rigorous curriculum they will be tackling over the coming year. They prepared speeches on random topics and faced criticism from faculty and students, right there on the spot. They received blunt advice on workplace performance from bosses. They pitched business ideas and faced direct assessment from people who know.

The entire time, my heart was racing. I was on the edge of my seat, feeling like I was watching a new model of education unfold before my eyes. This is invaluable material, a priceless experience in a new kind of classroom. A dream, really: actual preparation for life through adding value to yourself.

After this retreat ended, the participants headed to their chosen apprenticeships in various spots across the country. They will be training in a variety of professions full time, even as they make their way through a rich curriculum that provides a four-year liberal arts education all in one year. It’s not easy. In fact, you have to be exceptional. That’s what Praxis is looking for: the raw material to cultivate people who are going to make a difference in the future.

The program is only in its second year, but it feels well established already. I helped with curriculum development in the early days. I’m so very happy I did.

I’m looking at this model and thinking of the trade-offs.

For a college education, you could spend four years, dollar amounts in the six figures (as much as a quarter million), rack up debt you will be repaying for many years, take all that time out of the workforce, and then face uncertain job prospects.

Or you could spend one year and $12,000 and make that money back working for a real company, one that is likely to make you an offer at the end of the year, even as you attend to a rigorous academic program.

Under the first model, many people leave college and are stunned to discover that their degree is not automatically marketable. They might have excellent command of a range of academic subjects, but employers are not buying at the labor prices at which applicants are willing to sell. It’s a problem because there is debt to service. What’s more, they don’t have a foothold in the workplace or have any knowledge about how to gain one.

Under the second model, students have been working for a thriving enterprise for a full year, getting to know people in an industry, and learning the ways of commerce. They have a network of many other companies that have partnered with the program. They have a group of successful colleagues in their class, and they can draw on them for support. They have only assets (experience, knowledge, networks, a new sense of maturity and responsibility) and no liabilities.

It’s like many innovations: In retrospect, you wonder why this kind of program hasn’t been around for a long time. But this is the way it always is. Progress requires innovators who are willing to take the risk. Taking the lead here was Isaac Morehouse, along with T.K. Coleman and Zachary Slayback. All three come from the community of liberty-minded intellectuals who were ready to try something completely new.



The idea is not completely new, though. It’s the oldest model of learning: personal tutoring plus apprenticeships. This was the way from the Middle Ages through the 1930s, when matters began to change, largely in response to government impositions that mandated wage and labor terms and public money being funneled into conventional higher education. After a time, college took over professional training, apprenticeships began to disappear, and ever more people were steered into institutions once reserved for rarified vocations.

The regular four-year college experience has been unquestioned for a century. It’s what you did to get fixed up in life. Government policy pushed and pushed this model, partly due to pressure-group lobbying and partly due to the fear of flooded labor markets during economic downturns.

That college is worthy at any cost is no longer obvious. The economics of the situation have changed in recent years. The opportunity costs of attending are intensifying, as are the direct costs of the college. It’s led many people to question what we are doing. Surely we need alternatives. But it’s risky to challenge something so established.

The great question at the beginning of Praxis was whether there were students willing to dive into a new way of doing things. That doesn’t seem to be a problem. Applications are high and the acceptance rate is running at 10 percent. There are nine students this year, which sounds small until you see how the program works. These nine students make for an interesting group: intense, highly focused, inadvertently cohesive.

Some have already finished college but realized that they weren’t prepared for work life. Others are right out of high school. Others left college to join Praxis. Ideologically, they are all over the map. It’s the same with demographics. Religious background? The same: very diverse. I came to expect a certain unpredictability in their interests. They ranged from sports to psychology to engineering to technology to religion to libertarian theory.

In the evening, there was a bonfire on the beach. We sat around tending to the fire and talking. We talked about absolutely everything. I gained a sense of the depth of reading and knowledge that these students had. It was all over the map: eccentric, fascinating, wide, and reflective of a deep curiosity about the world.

It was a joy to see their minds stretch as they engaged each other in conversation. Disagreement is taken for granted. But in such close quarters, and feeling such a deep connection through this program, they spoke to each other in civil tones—always honestly and intelligently.

In a world filled with niches and opinion silos, this experience alone is a benefit. Learning to get along with people with different views is a real life skill. These students are learning a great secret to life that many adults never really figure out: It is possible to gain value from others who are very different from you. Here we find the core of what it means to be educated in the liberal tradition.

What’s ahead for higher education? Some people think there’s a huge bubble on the verge of exploding. Others say that these fears are wildly exaggerated and that higher education is solid and thriving. What both views overlook is the possibility of radical disruption: that something better and more wonderful can come along that will eventually displace the current model.

Praxis is a long way from doing that. But it joins other waves of radical entrepreneurship that are raising fundamental questions about the established way of doing things.

In so many ways, public policy in the 20th century glued the world down to a pattern of living that is no longer working for vast numbers of people. It’s the risk takers and dreamers who are finding the workaround, creating new commercial institutions for the 21st century. For those fortunate enough to know about the alternatives and those brave enough to try something new, a freer life awaits.