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Faces of the New Higher Ed: Learning By Working

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Going to college used to be the prescribed path to success, but today, students are considering different options. The cost of a college education is soaring and many students are graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. One response to the high cost of secondary education are Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offered by companies like Coursera or edX that offer free online courses taught by well-known professors, but the jury is still out on how employers will view qualifications from MOOCs.

Students are now considering whether work experience should come even before college education. What if applicants already had a solid footing in the industries they hope to enter? That’s the mission of Enstitute, a New York City-based non-profit that's promoting the idea of learning by doing.

Co-founder Kane Sarhan developed Enstitute based on his personal experiences in college and in apprenticeships. He was a high achiever in university, but never felt very connected to what he studied until he started getting real-world experience through internships. Suddenly, the marketing terms used in class became relevant and there was a reason to understand them. His apprenticeships helped him get real-world job experience that he parlayed into a first job with more responsibility and higher pay than some of his peers who had graduated from top universities.

His friends started coming to him asking for advice and he tried to help them out by connecting them to entrepreneurs in his circle. The hunger for those connections, for real skills and practical experience, was so strong that Sarhan decided to institutionalize the apprenticeship experience.

“We sat down with about a dozen HR departments before we started the program and they said the traditional indicators that they use for recruiting are starting to fail,” Sarhan said. Hiring managers saw promise in Enstitute because new employees would come to them with practical skills – they wouldn’t have to spend valuable time retraining even the smartest entry-level applicant.



Enstitute, which raised funds to support their students from private investors, Microsoft Bing, and the Kauffman Foundation, welcomed its first class of 11 fellows in September of 2012. They've each been placed in a tech start-up where they'll work and learn for two years. They rotate between different divisions of the company, learning each aspect of the business before being given one area of focus. Enstitute does weekly check-ins with fellows to follow their learning progress and monthly check-ins with the host-companies to make sure the experience remains substantive.

Fellows also have six to eight hours of coursework per week, a mixture of online and offline work. Enstitute partners with SkillShare, Treehouse, GeneralAssembly, as well as private corporations like the Economist and MOOCs, which provide the courses meant to solidify the foundations of what they're doing on the job. The courses also focus on things like critical thinking and problem solving, written communication, verbal communication and presentation, as well as elective subjects in liberal arts, competency in basic business technology, and front- and back-end development.

[RELATED: For the Future Student, Higher Education Will Be Redefined]

In its pilot year, fellows get paid $200 per week and are given free room and board at a loft Enstitute rents in New York. The first year's fellows have not had to pay for the education, but in the future, Sarhan predicts there will be a nominal fee of $1,500 per year to cover the cost of online courses. He also expects the weekly stipend paid by companies to increase. The first eleven fellows are an exceptionally driven bunch, he said, and most already have experience with tech start-ups.


Sarhan is intently focused on trying to make sure Enstitute fellows emerge from the program as competitive candidates for good jobs at companies of all sizes. He’s confident that the on-the-job skills they're learning from their internships already put them a step above peers emerging from elite institutions with little experience.

But he’s also making connections with as many companies as he can, selling the Enstitute model. He’s creating a recruiting pipeline with employers on the other end who know exactly the kind of experience they're cultivating. Additionally, the “credential” that fellows receive from Enstitute is what amounts to a real-world portfolio of their work. They can demonstrate the projects they

[RELATED: Should Work Experience Come Before College Education?]

worked on during their apprenticeships, recommendations from their entrepreneur-mentors, peers and Enstitute staff, as well as the results of their online coursework. Taken together, Sarhan hopes it will paint a compelling picture of competence.


The company is currently accepting applications for their next set of fellows and have added digital media/advertising and non-profit/social good apprenticeships to the industry list they offer.

“At scale we see Enstitute working with any small to medium sized company in this country to place an apprentice, so anyone can learn on the job,” Sarhan said. That means flower shops or restaurants or auto body shops could all teach their trade through an apprenticeship. The founders want to take the program global, connecting international fellows to companies in their own communities. Sarhan said he's committed to keeping the program affordable and getting apprentices paid through the company. He doesn’t think anyone should have to go into debt to find their career path.

Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun, who launched Udacity, free online higher-ed classes, sees this kind of new model emerging for what comes after high school.

Rather than having higher education be tangentially related to some future idea of a job, Thrun believes that equation will change.“I’d love to see a time when job choices we make reinforce education,” Thrun said. “We don’t put education first and job second, but the job begins much much earlier in a way to motivate the education.”



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