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For millions of young Americans, a four-year college degree is the gateway to a modern career. Many others, though, want or need the chance to pursue a rewarding career path sooner and are looking for an alternative to acquiring core employment skills without obtaining a traditional degree.

Yet there have been few viable options for these people to acquire the complex skills that employers want today, especially for high-demand, low-supply jobs in technology. Coding “boot camps,” for example, tend to require large, up-front payments and are far better suited for people seeking a mid-career change — and who also can afford the fees.

At the same time, only 19 percent of students enrolled in traditional degree programs finish their studies within the expected four years. The problem is most acute for first-generation college students, who often lack the resources to afford a four-year degree program. As a result, there are millions of Americans today with accumulated student loan debt, but who have failed to earn a degree.

Even those who earn a four-year degree may find themselves unprepared to meet the needs of employers. In a recent Adecco survey of college students and recent graduates, 74 percent of respondents felt their schools failed to fully prepare them for the professional world. Employer surveys show similar findings, particularly in tech and tech-enabled sectors.

MissionU hopes to fill this education gap by providing an intensive one-year program that represents a new approach to career-based post-secondary education — an approach Omidyar Network is supporting through our new investment in this education pioneer.

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The MissionU program provides students with a deep dive into disciplines that are in high demand by employers, with the first focus on data analytics and business intelligence. It also seeks to impart practical work skills, including problem solving, collaboration, and project management, helping graduates bring a complete set of in-demand skills to employers.

The program is designed to be highly flexible, to accommodate the needs of its target students ages 19–29. About 80 percent of classes are held online, from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., with synchronous live classes and project-based collaboration.

Throughout the year, students also have frequent in-person connection with instructors and fellow classmates, during an initial four-day orientation and biweekly collaborative sessions. They also will participate in on-site visits with industry experts and employers. The 25–40 hour a week commitment leaves time for students to hold a part-time job or tend to family or other obligations while they study.

The program is designed to provide a career-based education without the kind of budget-busting debt that has left some 8 million people in default of their student loans. Instead of paying tuition up front, MissionU students will repay the cost through an Income Share Agreement (ISA). Once students have found a job with an annual salary of at least $50,000, they will contribute back to MissionU with 15 percent of their earnings for three years. That ensures students will pay only when they have the resources, unlike student loans that must be repaid regardless of an individual’s employment or income. In the future, MissionU will examine the potential for employer-paid models, and some employers are already partnering with MissionU to offer hiring commitments.

“No student or parent should be crushed by debt for wanting a better future,” says MissionU CEO and co-founder Adam Braun, who previously founded the nonprofit Pencils of Promise. “MissionU was built to provide a forward-thinking, world-class education that prepares students for the jobs of today and tomorrow, debt-free.”

With its first students scheduled to start classes this month (September 2017), the program is already in high demand: There were nearly 5,000 applicants for the 30 open spots in the first class, which is based in and serves students living in or willing to relocate to within 50 miles of the San Francisco metropolitan area. MissionU is on pace to receive several thousand more applicants for its second cohort.

To ensure all applicants have an equal opportunity to take advantage of the program, MissionU designed a software-driven application and review process that is not built around traditional metrics like SAT scores, which are strongly correlated with socioeconomic background and can thus bias the process. Instead, everything is focused on vetting prospective students by considering the core skills needed to succeed in the program: motivation, preparation, calculation, communication, and collaboration.

There are already expansion plans in place: A new San Francisco-based cohort will begin studies each trimester with January, May, and September start dates planned, and there are plans to launch at least one additional city in 2018. In 2019, MissionU will extend the curriculum to cover additional majors as well.

MissionU’s approach to providing an educational alternative that meets the current needs of students and employers aligns with Omidyar Network’s belief that affordable, accessible, high-quality, demand-led vocational and technical training, and low-cost tertiary education can significantly improve employability and income generation for underserved adult students.