Make School was a new university built in San Francisco between 2012-2021, graduating thousands of alumni into top technology companies, and issuing hundreds of Computer Science Bachelor's degrees.
Our students came from a broad range of socioeconomic, geographical, and cultural backgrounds and often outcompeted their peers at schools like Stanford and MIT for top jobs. Our alumni founded YC companies, worked at GoogleX, run teams at unicorn startups, wrote software to power city-scale art installations, and worked at non-profits like NASA and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
The school stopped operating independently in 2021 (due to financial challenges brought on by the pandemic) and became the Computer Science department of Dominican University of California.
Below is our vision and blueprint for improving higher education. Feel free to email me if you'd like to learn more about our work.
Make School is redesigning higher education for the 21st century. Our emphasis is on ensuring relevance of education for the modern economy and accessibility to students of all backgrounds.
We predict a sustainable and scalable model of college can be built upon the following pillars:
Make School is more than a college. It's an ideology, a movement, and a community. To our students, Make School provides, above all else, empowerment and belonging.
Our institution is focused on serving the following mission:
Our new model of college has enrolled over 300 students, coming from all walks of life and all corners of the globe. Majority of our students come from low to mid-income families, while nearly half identify as underrepresented minority students. Our career outcomes are on par with elite universities, giving us evidence that talent is, in fact, diverse and distributed.
This document is intended to share our vision, our pedagogy, and our learnings to educators, policymakers, and students. We hope our experiment will inspire innovation throughout the higher education landscape.
Our world is growing increasingly complex at an increasingly rapid pace. The software revolution is reshaping the economy, with 50% of existing jobs expected to be replaced by software and automation. This shift is bifurcating the labor pool. On one side, there exists a huge talent shortage of technologists. On the other, jobs that have been stable for decades have falling real wages or are disappearing entirely. Inequality between these groups is rising, and exacerbating systemic racial inequality driven by unequally distributed education and opportunity.
The traditional education system has been slow to adjust. Elite institutions have increasingly introduced computing education and modern academic pedagogy, but continue to rely on admissions criteria that select for students with access to high-quality secondary education and well-educated, wealthy families. With few exceptions, the majority of higher education institutions have been chasing status by replicating the model of elite institutions. They attempt to compete for students by building better facilities and ancillary services rather than investing in improved education and adapting to the needs of the 21st-century economy. Without the endowments of elite institutions, the accelerating costs incurred by most institutions over the past decades are presently held in a combination of student debt and institutional debt. There is as much risk of a wave of university bankruptcies as there is of a fracture in our financial system caused by a generation overburdened with unaffordable student loans.
The education system is exacerbating systemic inequality. Low-income students are being told a four-year degree is their ticket to upward mobility, but the system wasn't designed to fit their needs and nearly half fail to graduate in 5-6 years. The ones who do remain riddled with debt, which limits their ability to take risk, pursue their passions, raise families, and ultimately depresses their long-term earnings potential and well being. Despite the industry being comprised of predominantly well meaning and good hearted actors, a system designed to fix inequality has started to function against its aims.
This reality is leaving a generation of students increasingly disenfranchised with traditional education. Despite all the challenges with higher education, the ROI for the average student remains positive. The education isn't engaging or relevant enough and the costs are too high, but there don't exist any viable alternatives. A generation that discovers their passions on Reddit, learns on Wikipedia, and grows empowered to drive social change on Facebook is begrudgingly pursuing a college education that fails to respond to their needs because society has left them no choice.
The first classes at Make School took place in 2012 at a home in Palo Alto. It was a program born from the same movement and with the same ideology we hold today, though a vastly different format. High school students attended Make School for 2 months over the summer in an attempt to build and launch a product to the app store. Students did not pay for the education, instead they shared revenues from their product - directly aligning our incentives with theirs.
The desire to build such a program and the educational thesis on which it has been developing were derived from the lived experiences Jeremy and I had throughout our own education. We were products of a global progressive education system. We attended Montessori schools, international schools, new age schools (with no grades or tests), public schools, prep schools, and two of the most distinguished universities in the world. We studied across 5 countries and 8 cultures before meeting in computer science class in our Silicon Valley high school.
This foundation of broad-based education combined with an opportune exposure to computing empowered us to start building software products in high school; iPhone applications which saw commercial and critical success. Countless hours spent coding, shipping features, reading reviews of happy customers, and improving their experience made us feel empowered to start solving larger problems with technology.
Suddenly, our education had a newfound relevance and purpose. Understanding our long-term goals gave clarity to our short-term focus. Knowing why we were learning showed us what we should be learning. The act of applying knowledge drove stronger absorption and retention of knowledge. This perspective has proven to be a core principle of our pedagogy, flipping not just the classroom but the entire foundation of an education.
This new paradigm of education has amplified relevance in the 21st century. Today, knowledge domains have grown so specialized and rapidly changing that it's impractical to focus education during early adulthood and allow that education to serve a lifetime. The model of purpose-driven learning (learning just ahead of application) has become a necessity. Additionally, the advent of the internet, modern development frameworks, and robust distribution networks make it possible to apply knowledge to create real-world impact far earlier during one's education than historically possible.
The dilemma that Jeremy and I faced (now being faced by millions of iGen youth around the world) was that exposure to this new paradigm made the traditional model of collection driven education (stockpiling knowledge in hope of future use) feel impractical, unfocused, and disempowering. The disconnect between our university education and purpose-driven learning left us feeling wholly disengaged. We spent much of our time in our dorm rooms, diligently absorbing and applying knowledge and skills we deemed relevant to our long-term ambitions. Eventually, we chose to leave our respective universities.
Our initiative to build educational programs for our peers was born out of the desire to share this secret we had discovered. Our summer program was a vehicle to expose our peers to feelings of passion, purpose, and empowerment, while providing them with practical and employable skills. Though we initially intended to build a supplement to a traditional education, the sentiment of our students pushed us to consider designing a new paradigm entirely. Our students told us Make School was the first time they had felt fully engaged in their education. That they learned more in two months than in two years of studying computer science in college. That they had finally found a community to which they belonged.
Our students were the visionaries that inspired us to experiment with building a new model for higher education. We've spent the last four years learning through application and research in an attempt to answer two fundamental questions. If we were to go back to college, what would our ideal experience be? What do we imagine college will look like in 20 years?
The Product University is a moniker for a new model of higher education that stands in contrast to research universities and liberal arts colleges. Students attend four-year colleges for one of three primary reasons: to enter academia, to explore the world's knowledge, or to build a foundation for a successful knowledge economy career. We believe research universities and liberal arts colleges serve the first and second segments well, respectively. But for career-minded students - a group that has grown in tandem with the cost of college - there don't exist effective pathways into knowledge economy jobs.
We hope our experiment can be the foundation of a new kind of university that will co-exist with existing university models and offer a new option for millions of students who are seeking a roadmap to the 21st-century economy. This future economy will demand it's workers to be creators, providing a product or service to help solve a need or develop an enriching experience. Effective creators won't be silo'd into functional roles, they'll need a broad-based knowledge set and increased adaptability in order to succeed.
As Product Universities have different goals to existing higher education models, they will be built on a different foundation than traditional institutions:
Education: The education will blend liberal arts with professional education, combining the best of a broad-based education with career development courses designed in tandem with industry. A hybrid campus model will be increasingly used, with students spending 2 intensive years on a physical campus learning from instructors, peers, and industry mentors, followed by online degree completion during post-employment terms.
Finances: Extended Income Based Repayment (EIBR) will extend the federal IBR program to all private and public student debt. This will allow students to receive the lowest cost of capital financing for their education while remaining protected from unaffordable debt burdens if unemployed or underemployed. EIBR will also create a systemic incentive for the institution to maintain strong employment rates as stronger employment means less money is needed to fund EIBR.
Accreditation: Accreditation standards are intended to take efficacy of education and graduate outcomes into account. Government and student pressures in coming decades will drive shifts towards improving measurement and increasing importance of these measures. Improved technology platforms with deeper insights on learner behaviors will allow for competency-based frameworks to be revisited. Accreditors such as WASC have demonstrated willingness to explore new models of accreditation, allowing for greater variability in educational models and accelerated innovation.
Democratizing access to top quality higher education and career pathways is a core focus of our organization. We offer financial aid through Title IV (protected by EIBR). We seek to create new avenues of upward mobility for underrepresented populations who are often adverse to traditional debt and unable to spend 4 years out of the workforce. We hope models like ours can help address systemic inequality as the economy evolves.
In order to achieve this, we designed our admissions process to consider criteria tangential to traditional institutions and to serve as a coach rather than a gatekeeper. We do not ask for SAT scores or GPA (which are heavily correlated to access to high-quality education), instead we seek proxies to evaluate aptitude for computing and sustained work ethic. Students demonstrate these traits through computing coursework (either in school or online) and evidence of complex projects, volunteer work, or employment. Should a student lack suffcient evidence at the time of application, we ask students to participate in our Ramp program where they work through an online course supported by weekly group office hours. This allows motivated students to earn admission into our college and levels the playing field for students who were not afforded mentorship and opportunity through their secondary education.
Our admissions remains selective, but on a different axis than the criteria of traditional institutions. Some of our students rank highly on both axis’ and choose Make School over Ivy+ institutions. Others rank highly on our criteria and choose us over state schools or community colleges. As a result, our student body is far more diverse than Ivy+ institutions with similar outcomes. 60% of our students are from low to mid-income backgrounds (compared to 10-15% at Ivy+ institutions) while nearly half identify as underrepresented minority students (compared to 15-20% at Ivy+ institutions). Institutional design (discussed in depth below) needs to be mindful in supporting a diverse student body with an emphasis on coaching, mentorship, and support outside the classroom.
The Make School ethos and vision has resonated not only with a socioeconomically diverse population, but a geographically diverse population as well. Similar to Ivy+ brands, but in contrast to other institutions, majority of our applicants are from out of state, with 40% from other countries. We're building a global pipeline of students possessing the Maker ethos through value-driven marketing initiatives. We provide free online courses, free curriculum for high school classes, and a low-cost summer program to engage students in our model of education. Early signs point to the development of a global brand appealing to iGen students who seek progressive education and are passionate about creating impact through technology.
Designing an effective education requires making choices surrounding the aims and outcomes of the education. Diversity of institutions is important to create pathways for students with differing goals. The aims of our education directly map to the wants and needs of our 18-22 year old, career-oriented, computing focused, maker minded student.
Through our education, we aim to empower our students to grow into leaders and innovators who shape the future of society. We do so through creating a supportive community of like-minded peers, coaching students to vision their future, connecting our students to mentors further along their desired trajectories, and providing an education aligned with student goals.
We define 5 core aims of our education:
Agency: College is a critical time for students to develop into adults with agency of their lives in both professional and personal contexts. Students learn to live on their own, take care of their health, budget their finances, prioritize their work, manage their time, communicate effectively, manage expectations, build habits, and take responsibility for their actions.
Citizenship: In addition to learning to take care of themselves, students develop character necessary to take care of those around them. Students formalize their ethical frameworks, practice empathy, understand privilege, respect diversity, reject bias, define consent, volunteer for their community, engage in local politics, and defend the morals and values they believe in.
Employability: Students develop a computing focused skill set in demand in today's economy, enabling to take care of their livelihoods and often provide for their families. They are provided opportunities to apply this skill set to develop a strong portfolio, and experience working in teams to develop the task management, communication, and professionalism necessary to succeed in a collaborative workplace.
Foundational knowledge: We seek to equip students with a foundational toolset and knowledge base to serve a long-term career. This combines soft skills - such as critical thinking, problem solving, growth mindset - and hard skills - such as computational thinking, modeling, data analysis. Most fundamental is for students to develop a curiosity to continue learning and developing their minds throughout their lives.
Impact mindset: Effectively combining citizenship and foundational knowledge can unlock potential of students to become forces for good in the world. Students are influenced to seek employers solving problems facing today's society, and challenged to predict problems that will face tomorrow's world. Students develop a broad knowledge base to understand multi-faceted issues, consider first principles to identify solutions, and apply systems-level thinking to predict how solutions will need to adapt to scale.
In order to accomplish our aims, we've designed our education on four cornerstones:
Liberal Arts: A broad-based education helps round out students’ worldview and understand the potential for impact and risks of technology in our rapidly changing society. Students navigate conversations about gender, race, and ethics currently facing the tech industry. Students take classes on writing, design, personal finance, and economics to help them develop into a successful professional and engaged citizen.
Computer Science Theory: Foundations in computer science are critical to understanding how computing has developed and what the future holds. Through classes on data structures, algorithms, machine learning and artificial intelligence students build the critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills necessary to adapt over a long career in the rapidly changing technology industry. Students develop the ability to architect software to solve complex real-world problems.
Software Development: Practical experience in building and shipping real-world software, using industry standard tools and collaboration techniques equips students to secure and succeed in their first job upon graduation. Students choose a technical concentration between mobile and web development and learn the modern languages and frameworks in demand with employers. Students enter the workforce knowing how to communicate with stakeholders and design great products.
Character Development: Modern organizations expect people to bring their whole selves to work, so we expect students to develop their whole self at school. Leaders are defined not by their intelligence or skill, but by their grit, resilience, courage, empathy, candor and kindness. Students work to build character through coaching, guest speakers, discussions and group projects designed to help them understand and navigate personal development and relationships with others.
Effective delivery of education is as essential as having relevant objectives and content. The context and mode in which something is taught will impact absorption and retention of information. Progressive education pedagogy has been well researched over the past decades, with strong insights around how to better design a relevant and engaging education. Multidisciplinary projects are more impactful for students than silo'd subjects, constructionist methods of learning drive stronger retention, and understanding goals and relevance of content drives motivation. Students are driven by the same factors as workers in organizations, they need feelings of purpose, autonomy, and mastery to feel engaged and inspired. This model of learning - paired with high touch instruction and coaching - has proven to be effective at closing the preparation gap for (often low income) students entering STEM fields without prior exposure.
We are fortunate to be able to draw on decades of work by researchers and educators who have theorized and successfully implemented progressive education principles. Although there exist many individual classes leveraging these principles throughout higher ed, there exist few entire curricula designed with them in mind. We've adapted these principles to suit our aims and our demographics in order to design a more relevant, engaging, and inspiring educational experience.
Designing an effective learning experience has strong parallels to the broader study of designing strong user experiences. This is especially true when serving an “on demand” generation which prefers pull services (eg. self-driven learning with on-demand access to instructor support) to push services (eg. traditional lectures). There are 5 core components that compose an effective education, each an answer to a core usability question:
Where am I?
Goal setting helps demonstrate relevance of what students are learning and how it will support their growth. This is akin to navigation and menus on a website or app.
What should I be doing?
Prioritization helps students understand what they should be focused on to efficiently achieve their goals. This is akin to the blur test on a website or app (ie. which elements attract your attention to interact with).
What tools do I need?
Processes to absorb knowledge equip students with the information needed to achieve their goals. This is akin to tutorials or tooltips - ideally blended with action.
What action should I take?
Opportunities to apply knowledge enable students to make concrete progress towards their goals. This is akin to taking the core action on a website or app.
Do I feel safe?
A key component of effective learning without a strong parallel to digital products is whether students feel a sense of belonging and security. This support is best provided by coaching, community building, and support outside the classroom.
The mainstream education model (used by most secondary and post-secondary institutions) prioritizes absorbing knowledge over contextualizing and applying knowledge. Teachers generally push knowledge to students through textbooks and lectures.
|Parents + Counselors
|Parents + Counselors
The flipped classroom model broadens the role of teachers to support students in both absorbing and applying knowledge, increasing emphasis on application. Students absorb knowledge through pre-work delivered digitally prior to class, while class time is leveraged to discuss content and apply knowledge through projects and exercises. Students pull support from teachers as needed (and often in 1:1 settings) as they work through projects.
(via digital content)
|Parents + Counselors
|Parents + Counselors
(via small group review)
(via classroom support)
The progressive education model - used at Make School - further broadens the role of teachers to encompass goal setting and prioritization, with an emphasis on purpose-driven learning. Instead of the teacher's role being focused vertically on absorbing knowledge (as in the mainstream model), teachers provide a horizontal layer of support across all areas. This model requires improved digital infrastructure, access to coaching and mentorship, and stronger student engagement. Increased engagement is driven by the improved contextualization and relevance. Teachers work with students to set macro goals and choose projects that will drive the required learning to achieve those goals. Students kick off projects in which they will apply knowledge, and in turn are highly motivated to absorb requisite knowledge to further their projects. Counterintuitively, students are often exposed to concepts in projects prior to learning the underlying theory, which helps evidence relevance of concepts.
(via project work)
(via online content)
(via task management)
(via group work)
(via discussion groups)
(via 1:1 project support)
(via small group review)
Beyond emphasizing purpose-driven learning, we seek to build contexts that create immediate real-world relevance for students. Many class projects involve shipping products that students can use in their daily lives, while others involve contributing to open source projects where their code will support production software. Students can also work on projects under mentorship of industry professionals, giving students real end users and a meaningful objective for their work. This has proven to drive even stronger engagement - especially among diverse student populations - than existing progressive education environments.
Curricular design at Make School begins with well-defined Program Level Objectives (PLOs) that target the aims of our education. PLOs inform specializations within our degree path (eg. mobile development, full stack web development, data science, project management) which inform the catalog of courses offered. We then define Course Level Objectives that target competencies and outline individual class sessions as part of a syllabus.
Competencies are evaluated primarily through project work, both individual and group projects. The projects help ensure students apply their learnings and demonstrate evidence of strong absorption of knowledge and practical skills. Evaluation occurs through holistic rubrics covering competencies of classes. Rubrics feed into a master student success rubric that covers technical expertise, soft skills, communication, and job readiness.
The curriculum and rubrics are annually re-evaluated with input from students, instructors, external educators, and industry executives to ensure cohesiveness and relevance. 20-30% of courses are new in any given year, while 70-80% of the retained courses go through iteration and improvements during the year.
Broadly, our educational environment draws more from modern workplaces than classrooms. We rely heavily on the drivers of motivation that have been researched to inspire knowledge workers: purpose, autonomy, and mastery. Our evaluation feels more human and practical, similar to well-constructed performance reviews. On top of a workplace feel, we layer constructionist educational principles and high touch instruction to ensure students have ample support to grow. This blend creates a highly supportive environment that serves as a more natural transition between traditional high school environments students come from and the workplaces they will transition to. Most importantly, this blend inspires a deep love of learning and creativity that empowers students to make the most of their education.
The progressive education model creates great opportunities for technology to augment (rather than replace) human-centric education. Gains from technology have proved limited over the past decades through an efficacy focused lens, though technology has substantially changed how students consume education. Technology, so far, has been used as an add-on to existing classroom experiences rather than leveraged to rethink how education is delivered. Though video lectures - which students can watch and rewatch at their own pace - are undoubtedly a large improvement, they still propagate a largely ineffective educational format.
Technology will undoubtedly be essential in designing future models of education. The challenge lies in leveraging a blend of technology and humans to scale high-quality education. Large lecture halls - and now video lectures - have served as an effective way to scale mainstream education, but progressive education requires teachers to do far more than delivering content. So how can we effectively scale teachers?
We should start by examining what the role of a teacher is in progressive education. Being a teacher requires nearly as broad of a skillset as being an entrepreneur. Teachers build content, manage dozens of people, review documents, complete administrative tasks, and more. We categorized the key aspects of an instructors job at Make School and found 12 core responsibilities:
|Building new curriculum
|Iterating on existing curriculum
|One-to-many content delivery
|One-to-one topic clarifications
|One-to-one problem solving
|One-to-one office hours
|Goal setting and prioritization
|Admin, scheduling and reporting
* applies to learners who are speeding ahead as well as falling behind
This breakdown provides us with a better understanding of the challenges of scale. Aspects of this role are rote (thus automate-able), others are standard across cohorts (thus centralize-able), while a core subset is deeply human and personal. The human and personal elements are the teaching equivalent of the “last mile”. While pure software driven education can drive 80% of the education, the remaining 20% - which typically is the highest leverage learning - is immensely difficult for software to solve. Thus teachers can act as that last mile support, investing their time in one-to-one and high leverage interactions with students. We see 4 key categories that fit into the last mile of our education:
|Building new curriculum
Dedicated curriculum team
|Iterating on existing curriculum
Dedicated curriculum team
|One-to-many content delivery
|One-to-one topic clarifications
|One-to-one problem solving
|One-to-one office hours
Leverage mentor network
|Goal setting and prioritization
Digital learner tools
|Admin, scheduling and reporting
This model of education ensures a human-centric and deeply personal experience. The efficiency gains from our technology infrastructure will be focused around project evaluation, administrative work, and supplementing human coaching with a learner dashboard that helps contextualize current work and priorities into a long-term goal oriented roadmap.
In addition to leveraging technology, building a robust teaching corps is essential to scaling high-quality progressive education. We anticipate hiring a diverse group of curriculum architects and developers, and instructors of varying experience levels. We’re investing greatly in teacher training and professional development to support our teaching corps. This investment will help us ensure excellence in hiring, developing, and retaining high-quality teaching talent.
Looking forward, we’ll continue to experiment with modern software and tools - such as interactive learning environments - to further integrate technology as a cornerstone of the classroom experience. We view blended learning as a classroom experience redesigned from the ground up, with software and teachers respectively solving problems they are best suited for.
Experiences outside the classroom are as vital to students’ development as the education inside it. College is often the first time people live away from home, make lifelong friends of different backgrounds, learn time management, challenge their viewpoints, and develop character. The construction of university environments enable these learnings, though few institutions do so with deep thought and intention. We see great opportunity to improve upon the existing model of human development in hopes of developing our students into successful adults and engaged citizens. In the near term, we are focused on the following areas:
Consent culture: Issues around sexual harassment and assault are rampant across college campuses and the tech industry, and deeply important to fix to ensure gender equality. Cultural norms and media propagate an unhealthy culture around dating and sex, especially when involving substances. We hold a responsibility to our students to ensure a safe environment for all genders. We are approaching this through a combination of preventative education around these issues, endorsement of consent culture, and systems for reporting. We don’t feel Title IX regulations do a good enough job of preventing incidents or educating students. We plan to share educational content we develop to help other institutions reshape culture around consent.
Mental health: Today’s youth are experiencing greater mental health challenges. These challenges often correlate with inconsistent or poor academic performance and are often stigmatized. We integrate workshops around mental health into our education aiming to reduce stigma and introduce toolsets to help students manage their psychology. Our coaching program helps identify and support students going through internal challenges. We offer heavily subsidized mental health and therapy consultations - which nearly one-third of our students take advantage of - in addition to escalation paths for severe issues
Character development: We’ve deeply integrated character development into our education to better prepare students for their careers and broader lives. Students learn about professionalism, thoughtful communication, empathy, willpower, mindfulness and honesty. Students are encouraged to practice skills through interacting with their peers and the broader community. We hope to build a community where people share their stories, feel less alone, plan personal-growth actions and hold each other accountable.
Diversity, inclusion, and community: Our students come from all around the US (soon all around the world) and from all walks of life. Ensuring a culture that promotes diversity and is inclusive of all backgrounds and ways of thinking is essential to building a creative and safe environment where students can grow. We establish cultural norms and emphasize these values during orientation and recurrently throughout the year. We help students understand their biases and emphasize the mission and values that unite us all.
Student life in an urban campus: We’re building our campus to be integrated into San Francisco, a city in the midst of a modern renaissance. San Francisco has been leading both a software-driven economic revolution and a counter-culture driven social revolution over the past decades. The cities booming growth is not without challenges, rising inequality, exorbitant cost of living, and growing segregation. We feel such an environment - rather than a discrete campus - is ripe for learning how to be an engaged citizen. Students commute through the city from their dorms to our school, finding opportunities to engage with the surrounding community. Students have access to tech industry events, academic lectures, and arts & culture shows that take place every night across the city. Students will take classes on politics and ethics, helping them understand their place in a larger ecosystem. We plan to increase expectations for students to be civically engaged, through volunteer opportunities and by building software to help power civic initiatives run by city government and local organizations.
A college degree is considered to be helpful throughout one’s career. Specifically, the general education, the institution’s brand to attract employers, and the alumni network to discover opportunities. However, in a rapidly changing economy where skills are increasingly valued over network, institutions need to look to expand their career support during a student’s education and throughout their lives.
At Make School, career support begins with coaching and mentorship. Students meet with their coach twice monthly to discuss their long-term goals and are guided through an academic plan designed to support their trajectory. We seek input from our industry partners to determine which courses to recommend students based on their desired career path. Industry mentors regularly visit our campus and give students feedback on projects and guidance on how to best leverage their time both inside and outside the classroom.
Students are continuously evaluated by their coaches against our job readiness rubric, a summary of their proficiency in theoretical foundations, applied knowledge, communication, and soft skills. Once a student demonstrates sufficient progress, they activate our career services. Students participate in workshops to practice job interviews, prepare their portfolio and resume, and negotiate offers. Coaches actively manage a student’s search for internships and jobs, while also facilitating introductions for students to companies that match their goals. Once students are placed into internships and jobs, we check in with students to ensure their onboarding is smooth and the environment is a strong fit for them. Students frequently enter jobs with substantially faster ramp-up times than typical new grads, and often receive promotions within their first year of work.
We aim to further support alumni beyond their first job. Our professional network, coaches, and mentors remain available to alumni as they apply for their second and third jobs. We frequently advise alumni who are founding their own companies, and help introduce them into founder and investor networks.
This year, we are beginning to experiment with providing evening courses and online content to alumni who want to continue their education once in the workplace. In the longer term, we may consider offering part-time certificate or degree programs designed specifically for alumni interested in moving into different domains or accelerating their career trajectories. Opportunities for lifelong learning are critical for sustained career success and should be the responsibility of post-secondary institutions to provide.
As we’ve spent more time speaking with leaders of higher ed institutions, we’ve noticed many of our viewpoints feel far less radical than they did just a few years ago. The modern crop of university presidents feels well tuned to the challenges facing higher education. The difficulty for them lies in driving systemic change in their institutions to address these challenges.
Our uniqueness today is not in our vision of what a new model of higher education looks like, but in our nimbleness, our ability to execute on our vision, and our opportunity to design an institution on these principles from the ground up.
Principles of organizations are often threatened as organizations scale. The challenges arise when two principles conflict, when new leaders join the organization, and when resources (both time and money) are stretched thin.
To help address these challenges, we are aiming to build our organization with only two primary principles. Secondary principles exist, though they are explicitly subordinate to the two primary ones.
The first is self-evident, one would be hard pressed to find an institution that did not consider this a key principle. Yet institutions regularly sacrifice this principle. The importance of the second meta-principle is to ensure institutional values are upheld. Creating systems to ensure values-driven decision making will help address the core threats to organizational principles that occur with scale. Systems can implicitly prioritize values and provide decision making support to overworked team members and new hires.
A few examples of systemic principles at Make School:
EIBR: Offering downside protection for student debt in form of Extended Income Based Repayment directly ties Make School’s financial incentives to student success. Our institutional focus is forced on outcomes rather than inputs as better outcomes will lead to less money spent on EIBR. This incentive also drives us to hold a tight feedback loop with industry and ensure our education stays relevant to the needs of the 21st-century economy.
Student Satisfaction: One of our key organizational metrics - which we use to define success of our leadership - is a measure of student satisfaction. Expecting leadership to report on this metric monthly ensures we collect monthly student feedback, swiftly address student concerns, and frequently iterate on our courses.
Compensation Equation: We define faculty and staff salaries based on a consistent salary equation based on skill and effectiveness. The equation limits negotiations, ensures fair compensation across the organization, reduces competitiveness, and increases trust and transparency. It protects our values of equity and diversity as we give managers systemic way to avoid implicit bias and ensure equal pay across demographics.
We believe thoughtful design of the systems that power our institution is key to building a values-driven organization and ensuring quality at scale. In designing these systems, we must build integrated relationships between the (often disjoint) functions of academics, finances, operational metrics, and digital tools. We need to allow new information and ideas to challenge and change existing systems to enable innovation and experimentation. We must establish protocols to make risk and failure acceptable, and allow graceful recovery. If designed well, these systems can help ensure sustainability and relevance of our institution over hundreds of years.
The early results of our experiment have so far supported our hypotheses. Our outcomes are on par with top universities, our students are engaged and inspired in the classroom, our alumni are excelling in the workforce, and we are creating upward mobility for a diverse student body.
The next phase of our experiment will be more challenging than the first. Over the course of the next 5 years we are seeking answers to a series of questions:
Can we maintain quality? As we expand our student body to that of a mid-size private university, we’ll face new challenges with our systems of student support, instructor hiring and training, and career support, among others. Ensuring our education is a deeply personal and personalized experience will grow harder with scale. We must thoughtfully design systems to help uphold our values and ensure strong outcomes as we scale to a larger urban campus in San Francisco, and perhaps new cities.
Can we achieve long-term fiscal sustainability? With exception of a small handful of private universities with near billion dollar endowments, most universities face challenging financial predicaments. Non-profit funding can be impacted by macroeconomic cycles.
How will alumni careers develop? Our education has proven to result in strong outcomes, with a near 6 figure average starting salary. Top students have also been selected to join highly exclusive teams at top companies and moved into management roles at fast-growing startups. Long-term career success usually depends more on communication skills, rigorous professional development, and risk-taking rather than technical skills and starting salary. We plan to continually support alumni careers to ensure their careers continue to develop in an accelerated fashion.
Can we prove efficacy? Most research evaluating efficacy of top institutions has shown their success is largely around selection bias rather than quality of education. Our outcomes have proven to be on par with top institutions while drawing from a much broader socioeconomic range of students. We want to go deeper to prove efficacy, both for individual courses and for career outcomes. We’re looking to develop stronger evidence that the classes we teach truly meet our course level and program level objectives. We also plan to use doppelgänger studies to compare career of our students to those of similar profiles studying at other institutions.
Can we remain adaptive? The challenges faced by universities today are primarily due to the difficulty of directing a large organization to reinvent itself to the needs of modern students and employers. Though our education is suitable for today’s environment, we must assume that it won’t be suitable for tomorrow’s. We should look to design systems that inspire innovation and allow our education and institution to adapt to the psychology of future generations and the skills relevant to the future economy. Our feedback loops with industry and our own students will be essential to ensuring our institution can keep up with large-scale economic and societal shifts.
We hope our impact can extend further than the students who walk through our doors. Our students represent a small fraction of the hundreds of millions of students who seek higher education around the world every year. We cannot serve every student, nor will our model of education work for every student. We can, however, promote progressive education and emphasis on student outcomes to our peers.
This document is our first attempt to share our philosophy and pedagogy, a practice we’ll continue through publishing white papers, blog posts, and research. We hope our learnings can extend, be adapted, and inspire more experiments within higher ed. We want to serve as a beacon of innovation, constantly questioning the status quo and challenging the boundaries of what it means to be an accredited institution.
Our impact will be more wholly realized if there soon exist more Product Universities, adaptations of our model to radically different yet in-demand disciplines, and more models of higher ed that look nothing like ours but are equally radical.
In addition to thought leadership, we plan to open source much of our content and software to better enable others to implement our innovations. We also hope to partner with colleges and universities - as we are with Dominican University of California - to provide a subset of our courses as a computer science minor on their campus to equip them to prepare students for the 21st-century economy.
The final sections of this document should be considered as a thought experiment rather than a thesis. It is impractical to predict so far into the future for a young organization, though an attempt to do so may providing insight into how it might develop, and at the least the broad direction we are aiming to grow.
One of the underlying predictions behind our work at Make School - and interest in inspiring a new category of institutions - is that the economy is being largely reshaped by the software revolution. The gains of technology - and the real world possibilities created - have made many well-developed business models obsolete. We’re entering a world where large corporations (largely funded by a recent boom in venture capital) are being born within a decade by providing higher quality at a lower cost to consumers. These businesses - if designed ethically - have potential to create equity and improve quality of life globally.
We see Make School, and institutions like us, creating a robust talent pipeline for this new genre of organization. These organizations require a new mold of worker: self-driven, autonomous, passionate, vulnerable, empathetic, and ethical. Work is not a means to an end but a purpose, colleagues are not acquaintances but a community. Our aim is to develop and support a generation of talent to found and join organizations building a better and more equitable future.
Over the next decade, we expect to expand our courses of study beyond computer science, to computing adjacent fields where new products and services are being born. We’ll look to introduce specializations in design and human-computer interaction, robotics, cognition and artificial intelligence, biotech, and more. We hope to build out an urban campus in San Francisco, before expanding to New York City, and additional economic hubs around the world, allowing students to study across locations.
We’d want systems and software to loosely govern our network of campuses, ensuring enough agency for individual instructors and administrators to experiment with new models of education and new curricula to better support local students and industry. We expect our instructors to maintain heavy industry ties, some as adjuncts and some serving a multi-year “tour of duty” prior to taking the next step in their professional careers or founding their next startup. Our students will contribute to open source projects under the guidance of industry professionals, ensuring relevance of their education and enabling their work to create value for the world.
Our hope for Make School in the long term is to inspire a movement beyond the confines and structure of a specific mold of institution. At the core, Make School is about empowerment and belonging. A community that attracts like-minded individuals and gives them the knowledge and agency to tackle the biggest problems in the world.
The characteristics that constitute the largest companies in the world and the top universities in the world have heavy overlap. They unite large numbers of talented individuals under a shared purpose and leverage this potential energy to drive innovation and economic advancement. They create cultural norms, suggest ethical frameworks, and promote creative activity.
We hope to expand our ecosystem of education and innovation through various structures: our college, open source curriculum for high schools, powering courses at other universities, continuing education for our alumni, professional development within organizations, startup incubation, and more.
We hope our community embodies a progressive value set, challenges it’s own beliefs, and strives to uplift those around us. We seek to create equity and drive economic advancement globally. We hope our community is continually inspired to make, and that together we can reach billions of lives.