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The future of college? Portland sees growth in alternative higher education models

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Institutions such as Wayfinding Academy aim to turn higher education on its head


TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Caitlyn McCucheon says it took three years of tuition before she realized she was in the wrong field of study. McCucheon is now working as an intern in the fledgling Wayfinding Academy.Caitlyn McCucheon was three years into an athletic training program at Concordia University when she started actually spending time as an athletic trainer.

“It was pretty much sitting around doing things I wasn’t expecting,” McCucheon says. “I thought it was going to be active.”

She decided to change her major for her senior year, leading to a fifth year at the private university and three years wasted on a different path.

“I know I’m passionate in helping, but I don’t know what I want to do,” McCucheon says.

That’s why she is now interning with Wayfinding Academy, an initiative attracting talent from across Portland to build a new kind of higher education.

It’s part of a larger national backlash against the cost and character of higher education. Those in the millennial generation — 18- to 34-year-olds — have become disillusioned with four-year degree programs. The White House recently reported that at the end of 2014, student loan debt was the second-largest category of household debt, surpassing a total of $1 trillion.

The younger generation’s educational style is also different than their parents’ and grandparents’.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Wayfinding Academy founder Michelle Jones talks about the ways traditional colleges and universities are failing. The Wayfinding Academy is seeking to raise $200,000 to start classes in 2016. These days, “people exchange ideas over social networking and this is, in a way, what we are doing in our classes,” says Shai Reshef.

Reshef is president and founder of University of the People, an almost-free accredited online university where 2,000 students from 160 countries — including 10 from Portland and 19 more from across Oregon — are working toward their degrees in computer science, business administration and general education. The university keeps costs down in part through peer-to-peer discussions and grading.

“It’s a very lively discussion, very interactive, very demanding,” Reshef says.

These alternative higher education models are poised to present a sea change to what life after high school looks like.

“Maybe it’s time for these new shifts to come,” says Christine Chairsell, Portland Community College vice president of Academic and Student Affairs. “I think what’s really exciting about this is I’ve been in academia for 30 years and I could be witnessing the birth of a new planet.”

Turning the model inside out

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Founder Michelle Jones (center left) has assembled a team of two-dozen faculty, staff and board members, including (from left): Ethan Knight, Brittany Sullateskee, Caitlyn McCutcheon, Gina Lorubbio, Jefferson Smith, Tina Hart, and Dick Hill.Michelle Jones, a Concordia University associate professor of Organizational Behavior and Leadership, came up with the idea of the Portland-based Wayfinding Academy. Jones says she imagines a college that systematically asks students the tough question: What do you want to do with your life?

“We too often see students come to college and they don’t know why they are here,” Jones says. “They pass through a checklist kind of system that doesn’t help young people figure out who they are and why they are there.”

Wayfinding Academy would be a two-year program with six core curriculum courses centered on the questions of what each individual student wants to do, what has come before them and how to accomplish their goals. It would also have a heavy emphasis on apprenticeships and community service. Its Indiegogo campaign, to open for a 24-member class in August 2016, has raised more than $64,000 of a $200,000 goal. Organizers say tuition would be about $3,500 per term, keeping costs low by having a low real estate investment and a rather flat administration — faculty and staff would make similar salaries.

“We have a fairly nonhierarchical model,” says Jones, who has signed on 15 faculty and staff and a 10-member board of directors for the nascent university. Jones has previously put together groups for events like SuperThank, a community gratitude project; TEDxMtHood, an independent TED Talk event; and the World Domination Summit, a Portland-wide convention on positive change.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Jefferson Smith, founder of the Bus Project, is on the board of the Wayfinding Academy, a project raising money on Indiegogo to start a two-year university dedicated to helping students achieve their idiosyncratic goals. Wayfinding Academy board member Jefferson Smith, a longtime progressive politician in Portland and former mayoral candidate, says he was attracted to the project as a way to create a clearer path to success.

“The higher education experience for so many students is backwards,” Smith says. He notes that brick-and-mortar universities are using the Internet to gain more revenue with online courses or pushing out content with massive open online courses (MOOCs). But, he says, that is giving students the experience of university without the community and advice that is necessary for success.

Wayfinding Academy will aim to “turn that (model) inside out. Allow the students to head out in the world, but have them be tethered to the school through technology.”

Alternative model roadblocks

COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF THE PEOPLE - Shai Reshef, founder of University of the People, a tuition-free online university that serves a rapidly increasing number of Portland students. But how quickly alternative higher education models get integrated into society may be their undoing.

Jones says Wayfinding Academy can’t apply for accreditation until students are already on campus. From then, it will be a couple of years until the regional accreditation body, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, completes its accreditation process.

Without accreditation, it is unlikely that credits could be transferred to other institutions.

“Our registrar would look at that and go: ‘Hmm, we need some more vetting here,’ and may or may not accept it,” says PCC’s Chairsell.

The tuition-free University of the People is accredited through Distance Education and Training Council, but did not go through an additional layer of scrutiny needed to qualify for federal student loans. The university charges students (those who do not apply for hardship funds) $100 per end-of-term exam, amounting to about $1,000 per year.

It is also unclear how the business community will react to these degrees from unconventional institutions.

Reshef says that with 100 graduates it is too soon to make declarative statements. But so far, all 100 of them are working, and companies including Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard have partnered with UoPeople.

“In many places around the world, the fact that you were educated by an American standard is impressive in itself,” he says. Reshef adds that UoPeople now has 100 applications from Portland and 300 applications from Oregon.

Jones says she has gotten a lot of interest from parents in the homeschool and “unschool” movements and believes Portland is where an alternative higher education model could take off.

“Portland’s a lot more open to that than maybe a lot of places,” Jones says. Businesses here, she argues, “are more interested in having people who know what they are doing and why they are doing it” than where they went to school.


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