Higher education 2.0: College alternatives for the next generation of innovators

are empty classrooms the future?The best path toward finding a career used to be obvious: college. While there are always exceptions to the rule, it’s used to be an accepted rule that higher education was the preferred way to steer your future to stability, security, and success.

It’s no secret that the traditional education model is being challenged from a variety of industries, but the technology job market has particularly become a thorn in its side. The higher education mold and the fast-paced, learn-as-you-do digital environment run along divergent paths. While colleges are scrambling to offer a relevant curriculum for the times, we’re clearly witnessing disruption here.

One model that’s starting to make more sense in the tech job market than a college degree is the apprenticeship. It’s hands-on, it comes with guaranteed references, and it could end in a job. If you’re particularly trusting of such a training system, then you’ll save yourself a potential mountain of college-created debt.

But there should be a good healthy fear of choosing this route as well, and that’s the exploitation factor. Words like “stipends,” “perks,” “invaluable experience,” “college credit,” and “job-related expenses covered” could lead to worthwhile learning opportunities… or they can be issued by companies with the intention of working a desperate college grad to the bone until she loses all hope of ever making a dime there and quits. Internships aren’t necessarily bad, but they’ve earned a reputation as something that deserves an eyebrow raise or two.

Which means some skepticism is being directed toward tech apprenticeships and internships. One hopeful program, E[nstitute] (it’s currently attempting to fundraise over on Indiegogo) wants to offer tech startup hopefuls a two-year learning program in which they work under the tutelage of entrepreneurs like Bit.ly’s Hilary Mason, Thrillist’s Ben Lerer, or Chartbeat’s Tony Haile (who are definitely some of the more notable names affiliated with the venture). Housing, food, and transportation are provided in a stipend (see: job-related expenses), but that is the only form of payment.

The critic in all of us hears about E[nstitute] and immediately thinks, “two year’s work, no pay, no job guarantee, no dice.” But don’t be too quick to throw the idea of tech apprenticeships under the bus. Higher education is ripe for exploitation concerns as well. “A big piece of the problem is that colleges say you can get school credit for doing work elsewhere,” says UnCollege founder and former 20 Under 20 fellow Dale Stephens tells me. “It gets messy when colleges come in and say businesses can not pay students – instead, they’ll offer credit for us to work for free.”

Stephens is a fierce advocate of the apprenticeship movement, specifically in the tech industry, where experience is highly valued and often sparse on resumes. “In the software development community, there’s a huge need for engineers and a huge lack of talent.”

Certainly there are industries that aren’t conducive to a four-year education, and tech might be one of them. The dilemma of experience versus degrees is an unsolved one, and it’s contributing to unemployment rates of college grads. “I see right now a big missing link in our employment problem,” says software developer and manager at Groupon Dave Hoover. “There’s a very high unemployment rate amongst these age groups, and at the same time half these [tech] companies can’t fill roles. We complain that colleges aren’t preparing kids, but companies also need to adapt their hiring tactics.”

Hooker worked at Obtivo, a software development company acquired by Groupon. Before the deal, he was a part of starting an apprenticeship program there that was carried over to Groupon. As someone who switched to a technical career path late in the game, he knew it was possible to grow potential hires into the types of employees his company needed.

The apprenticeship program lasts six months, and participants are considered full-time hourly workers. That means no health benefits, but they do receive a stipend, as well as the option of a corporate apartment to live in if they want. Throughout the six months, there are scheduled goals and assessments where apprentices’ work is reviewed and they present what they’ve worked on and learned.

Most importantly, this is no sweatshop: Hoover says the team has four apprentices, each of which has a one-on-one relationship with a mentor. The setup has a 90-percent success rate, meaning 90 percent of people going through the program get hired and start working for Groupon.

It’s a legitimate option for young developers who need to bridge the gap keeping them from an entry-level position, and a far more financially sound option for tech-focused companies than hiring job recruiters. So why aren’t more companies doing this?

“It’s happening more and more, but I don’t think it’s talked about a lot,” Hoover says. “And there has to be some lead from top-tier companies, and right now there isn’t.” Currently, your Microsofts and Apples and Googles have their pick of the litter, and their job requirements reflect this. “Whether they have to go to England or Sri Linka and import the person that fits the qualifications, they’re going to find them,” he explains. “And I think because of that tendency to fill the box at all costs, this sort of thing hasn’t necessary caught on at the top tier.” Basically, they can afford to buy experts instead of grow and groom them. Tech startups and smaller companies, however, are starting to adapt.

Hoover paints a pretty rosy picture of how this can work, and Groupon’s apprenticeship method sounds like it’s trying to lead by example. But there is still reason for those considering this route to reserve caution, and to account for the differences between an internship and an apprenticeship. “That can be a blurry line,” he says. “An apprenticeship is a commitment between the apprentice and the company; with an intern, a company isn’t generally that committed. They come in to do a few things and then they’re gone. When there isn’t an investment both ways, that’s when people can get taken advantage of.”

Not everything advertised as an internship will lead down a path of two years with no or little pay and a lack of learning – but it can. Especially if you notice the company has gone on an intern hiring spree; if the number of those learning outnumbers those with something to learn from, that’s a pretty clear indication of how serious a business is about its young employees.

The there’s the “hacker hostel” route. The recently publicized term refers to small apartments or houses in Silicon Valley and San Francisco where tech hopefuls pile in like sardines and work toward entrepreneurial goals or full-time employment status. “The intellectual stimulation you get from being here is unparalleled,” one tenant told the New York Times. “If you’re wanting to do something to change the world and make it a fundamentally better place, you need to be around the right people.”

Certainly creativity can foster creativity, and there’s a lot of value to giving developers the chance to learn from one another – but there’s also argument that you’re creating a hive mindset, that there’s a lack of broadening your interests. It’s part of the defense for liberal arts universities and formal training programs, which largely require students to take extracurricular or standard classes, regardless of their long-term career plans.

And the more formal version of “hostel hostels,” accelerator programs, have created a good deal of skepticism regarding how well they actually work. Last year Aziz Gilani, who works for Houston venture capital firm DFJ Mercury, studied 29 accelerators and found that graduates from 45 percent of them were unable to raise venture funding. He also realized that there was a disparate gap in quality, with only two accelerators were able to produce meaningful startup exits: Y Combinator and TechStars.

Despite the hard facts on how successful this type of tech startup model is, accelerators are growing in numbers. TechStars founder David Cohen recently told GigaOm there must be more transparency in the market, to give entrepreneurs a more honest view of where their money is going.

The self-teaching movement that’s taken the Internet and tech crowd by storm also deserves a watchful eye. Khan Academy is one-well known platform, and has received high praise for its ability to bring learning and trades to everyone with a computer and an Internet connection. But it hasn’t been without criticism: A video of two math professors critiquing a Khan Academy lesson went viral. On the other hand, there’s been nearly nothing but positive things to say about Codeacademy, the interactive programming teaching tool.

Navigating the changing world of finding an education and career in the technology industry is tricky: There are endless options, both a huge benefit and possible concern to young people entering the tech industry today. The choice between higher education, apprenticeship, online learning, or startup-centric program – or possibly more likely, some combination of the above – is theirs to make. It’s inarguably time to disrupt our education system for technical and tech-related skills, and plenty of new platforms are eager to offer their own solutions. But it’s important to remember that we still don’t have the solution… just lots of possibilities, some bad, some good, some great, and there’s no shortcut to making it in this industry.