In Search Of A College MVP

Volume VI, #25

Some of my fondest college memories are of debates held by the Progressive Party of the Yale Political Union. Ostensibly a debate about a topic (“Social Change Demands Violence,” “One Person Can Change The World”), it didn’t really matter what the topic was. It was essentially arguing for the sake of learning to argue. One time we debated “Watch Out For China!” – those arguing against the resolution contending that China wasn’t worth watching out for. Fairly wrong, as it turned out.

After each speech, the speaker would yield for questions. Typically there were a handful of on-topic questions, then a rapid descent into a series of unrelated dichotomies, requiring the speaker to select the preferred (or more likely, less objectionable) option.

“Lee Harvey Oswald or Oswald Mosley?”
“Light of my life or fire of my loins?”
“Han Solo or Luke Skywalker?”
“ABBA or Wings?”
"Au jus or Sans jus?”
Or my favorite: “MSG – Madison Square Garden or Monosodium Glutamate?”

If the Progs existed today (they died, likely as a result of lack of serious debate), I imagine a hot dichotomy would be this: MVP – Most Valuable Player or Minimum Viable Product? While the former is familiar to any sports fan, the latter emerged out of Silicon Valley in the past decade. A Minimum Viable Product is the simplest, smallest product that provides enough value for consumers to adopt and actually pay for it. It also is the minimal product that allows producers to receive valuable feedback, iterate and improve. A Minimum Viable Product is one of the core tenets of the so-called “Lean Startup,” and explains why many technology entrepreneurs are now able to launch businesses with practically no investment at all.

College as we know it is the polar opposite of a Minimum Viable Product. A bachelor’s degree is neither simple nor small. It’s not designed to allow colleges and universities to iterate and improve. And it’s certainly not minimizing anyone’s investment. Which is why the most important development in higher education in the next decade will be a College MVP.


Some of the lean startups proliferating in Silicon Valley and elsewhere are bootcamps, providing “last-mile” training to unemployed, underemployed, and unhappily employed young people and – critically – placing them in good jobs in growing sectors of the economy, like technology and healthcare. This largely technical training is increasingly referred to as “last-mile,” not only because it leads directly to employment, but reflecting the “last-mile” in telecom, where the final telephonic or cable connection from trunk to home is the most difficult and costly to install, also the most valuable. Bootcamps like Galvanize, Revature and AlwaysHired are busy installing these last-mile connections. Making and maintaining connections to employers is complicated and costly – exponentially more so than sitting in splendid isolation on a college campus developing new academic programs.

As these connections are made and reinforced, last-mile providers will be tempted. While today they’re serving a population that is ~90%+ college graduates, some are already spying a larger opportunity than simply serving as a “top-up” program for bachelor’s degree completers. Some will be inspired by the Silicon Valley ethos to ask this question: How do we move from “top-up” to “alternative”?

The answer, of course, is by adding a program ahead of the last-mile technical training to form the first stage of a comprehensive pathway to a good first job.

Such a program would equip students with cognitive and non-cognitive skills – not necessarily at the level one would expect of a college graduate, but at the (presumably lower) level employers require for entry-level positions. It would also be much shorter and less expensive than what we know and love as College.

The very concept of a College MVP raises a threshold question: would any employer hire a candidate with this level of preparation rather than a college degree? Sure, most employers will continue to prefer whole bachelor’s degrees. And many will continue to insist on it. But what if employers could start MVP candidates off at lower salaries? Why? Because MVP candidates won’t have forgone four years of full-time employment and won’t have incurred tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.

Another reason to believe employers might take an interest in MVP candidates is that no one – least of all employers – knows what cognitive and non-cognitive skills are expected of college graduates. Because no one – least of all colleges – is measuring anything. Meanwhile, you can bet that last-mile providers who add an innovative College MVP will be asking questions of employers, assessing constantly, measuring and communicating back to employers – and almost certainly doing a better job of selling their candidates to employers than colleges and universities do.

Finally, employers with any sense of the broader socio-economic context will – when presented with a potentially viable alternative – recognize that requiring a whole bachelor’s degree excludes virtually half the workforce, many of whom might be great fits.


Be disrupted or disrupt thyself? This may be the dichotomy many colleges and universities will face in a few years. While last-mile providers will be first to market with College MVPs, some colleges and universities will see the writing on the wall and attempt to do the same. Here are the challenges they’re likely to face in doing so.

1) Associate Degree Paradigm
Most colleges and universities probably think they have a College MVP. It’s called an associate degree. The problem is that the associate degree is a flawed credential, failing in many cases to prepare students with the requisite cognitive and non-cognitive skills required by employers, and giving rise to studies showing half of associate degree holders are underemployed.

The associate degree is a credential that’s derived from and beholden to the bachelor’s degree. In contrast, a College MVP won’t be organized around credit hours or precepts of general education, but will attempt to maximize development of critical thinking, problem solving, communication and teamwork skills in a minimal period of time. It will also attempt to provide students with cognitive frameworks that facilitate future learning – on the job and in continuing formal education and training. And while my guess is that College MVPs may look different depending on the industry or even the type of entry-level job, it seems likely that they’ll emerge from a paradigm shift from how we currently think about college – much more than simply cost and length.

Learning outcomesCompetencies/skills
AssignmentsWork product
Liberal artsCritical thinking
ElectivesPrescribed pathway

Colleges and universities that aspire to develop a College MVP will need to disabuse themselves of the illusion that the associate degree provides a viable model.

2) Building The Last Mile To Employers
Building a College MVP only makes sense if institutions are able to build the last mile to employers, which requires a lot more contact with employers than most colleges and universities are used to having. The vast majority of colleges and universities continue to believe they’re not in the business of preparing students for their first job, which runs counter to the top reasons matriculating students cite for pursuing postsecondary education, namely to improve employment opportunities (91%); to make more money (90%); to get a good job (89%). Meanwhile, at most colleges, career services remains the Las Vegas of the University. Northeastern’s co-op program gets so much attention because it’s so rare. It’s also not replicable overnight. Building an active network of thousands of employers has taken Northeastern decades.

3) Isomorphism
Perhaps the most significant impediment is cultural. The concept of a Minimum Viable Product is anathema to the culture of higher education. Why would respectable institutions offer less than a bachelor’s degree when their models – our most elite colleges and universities – aren’t likely to consider doing so for a very long time? Moreover, higher education reveres tradition, which is too often taken for granted as a signifier of quality – to the point that U.S. News might as well rank colleges each year based on age. As a result, it’s hard to imagine MVPs popping up at more than a handful of colleges and universities. Which is sad, because tens of millions of Americans could use them right now. College MVPs have the potential to be higher education’s Most Valuable Player.


Even if colleges and universities are likely to lag in the emergence of College MVPs, they’re already leading the way in the development of Master’s MVPs. When universities like MIT are comfortable rolling out MicroMasters credentials, thousands of institutions are sure to follow.

This is critical, as College MVPs won’t be the end of the postsecondary road for most students. After following a College MVP + last-mile training + placement pathway to a good first job in a growing sector of the economy, subsequent pathways will emerge to equip new employees with the higher-order thinking capabilities required for more complex and managerial positions. Higher education will go from a one- or two-time purchase for most students to a product employees consume as needed throughout their professional lives. And none of the aforementioned barriers to the College MVP are likely to stop colleges and universities from growing significant enrollment in thousands of Master’s MVPs.

University Ventures (UV) is the premier investment firm focused exclusively on the global higher education sector. UV pursues a differentiated strategy of 'innovation from within'. By partnering with top-tier universities and colleges, and then strategically directing private capital to develop programs of exceptional quality that address major economic and social needs, UV is setting new standards for student outcomes and advancing the development of the next generation of colleges and universities on a global scale.


Three articles that tell us where the puck is going in higher education

1. Buyer’s Remorse Investment News article on studies indicating that between 50-60% of student loan borrowers didn’t try or didn’t know how to figure out their future monthly payments, by Grete Suarez. “Most students are looking ahead to their future with rose-colored glasses,” said Robert Schmansky, founder of Clear Financial Advisors. “They're not worried or even thinking about future costs.” Read more 2. Emerging Alternative To Loans Money article on the rising popularity of income share agreements at universities like Purdue, by Kim Clark. Fans of ISAs hope these experiments will help solve the growing college affordability crisis. Alexander Holt, policy analyst for New America, a left-leaning Washington, D.C. think tank, who has studied ISAs, notes that they have received support from across the political spectrum. Purdue’s program was started by the university president, Mitch Daniels, who had previously been a Republican governor of Indiana. The Pay It Forward plans have been promoted by groups such as the Economic Opportunity Institute, a progressive nonprofit in Seattle. “ISAs don’t follow normal partisan lines,” Holt says. “They have the potential to be ‘purple’”—supported by both “red” and “blue” factions. Read more 3. One Small Step For Google, One Giant Leap For Competency Marketplaces Business2Community article on new Google API that allows developers of HR systems to incorporate machine learning features, by Sunil Bagai. To ensure that users receive the most relevant search results and recommendations, the API relies on Google’s advances in machine learning to understand how job titles and skills correlate. It then compiles the data to determine the closest match between job content, location and seniority. Read more