in: Career, Career & Wealth, Podcast

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #449: Faster and Cheaper Alternatives to College

Every year the cost of a four-year college degree goes up, forcing young people to take on massive amounts of student debt for an education that often doesn’t even prepare them well for the jobs of today. My guest today argues that there’s a better, cheaper, and faster way to prepare for gainful employment.

His name is Ryan Craig, he’s the Managing Director of University Ventures, an investment firm reimagining the future of higher education, and the author of A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College. We begin our conversation discussing the disconnect between a college education and the job skills employers are looking for and why higher ed continues to get more expensive each year. Ryan then digs into alternative education models that include boot camps, income-share programs, and apprenticeships that are not only faster and more affordable than college, but also put an emphasis on real-life job skills.

Show Highlights

  • How we got to the point where a college education is the required norm for young adults
  • Why did employers start to use a college degree as a sorting mechanism?
  • The long-term effects of underemployment
  • Why has college become so expensive? Where is all that money going?
  • The student loan debt crisis (and the consequences of being in default) 
  • Why isn’t the cost of college paying off like it use to?
  • What is a “last mile” program?
  • The importance of digital skills for today’s workforce 
  • What a modern apprenticeship looks like 
  • How do you choose between college and one of these alternative programs?
  • What should parents do? Should they still be saving for the kids’ college?
  • Where the state of higher education is heading in the next decade 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Book cover of "A New U" by Ryan Craig.

Connect With Ryan 

Ryan on Twitter

University Ventures

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. Every year, the cost of a four year college degree goes up, forcing young people to take on massive amounts of student debt for an education that often doesn’t even prepare them well for the jobs of today. My guest today argues that there’s a better, cheaper and faster way to prepare for gainful employment.

His name is Ryan Craig. He’s the managing director of The University Ventures, an investment firm reimagining the future of higher education, and the author of A New U, that’s the letter U, short for university; Faster, Cheaper Alternatives to College. We begin our conversation discussing the disconnect between a college education and the job skills employers are looking for, and why higher ed continues tog et more and more expensive each year.

Ryan then digs into alternative education models that include boot camps, income share programs and apprenticeships that are not only faster and more affordable than college, but also out an emphasis on real life job skills. After the show’s over, check out or show notes at, that anewu, the letter you, all one word.

Ryan Craig, welcome to the show.

Ryan Craig: Brett, great to be with you.

Brett McKay: You got a book out, A New U and it’s U, just the letter U, Faster, Cheaper Alternatives to College. I love this book because we were just talking earlier, I’ve got two young kids. I’m saving money for college like you’re supposed to like you’re even told you’re supposed to do, but I’m always curious like, man, is college even going to exist in 10 years?

In this book, you highlight some alternatives that are popping up, that might even replace college. Before we get there, let’s talk about this idea that, I’m working under the assumption that if you want to succeed in life, get a good job, you got to go to college. That’s what I did, that’s what my parents did. How did we get to this point where college was deemed a necessary requirement to get a good job? Because, that wasn’t always the case right?

Ryan Craig: That’s exactly right and I talk about that at length in the book. You know, up until the end of World War Two, 1950, only about 5% of US working adults actually had college degrees. If you go back and look at the history of college as an institution, colleges really began as a way in America at least, as a way for the merchant elite to distinguish or differentiate their kids from the kids of the hoi polloi.

So, it really began as a, if you will, elitist exercise, which is not to diminish or demean the caliber of education that occurred. There’s no question that a lot of cognitive skill building went into it. Most of our founding fathers had attended college and it showed. But the reality was that it was a rarity up until the end of World War Two.

Then really from sort of 1950 to the mid 80s early 90s it, really became the sole pathway. It really became either you go to college or the alternative is Skid Row. Of course, that wasn’t true. There remained and remain today a whole host of professions that don’t require four year college. But, that was the perception and so a striving, upwardly mobile couple having children, they would add to the list of things that they want for their child.

College became the saying and saving for college became important too, but not until later because not until the cost of college really began to rise out of control. That’s really been over the last 30 years or so.

Brett McKay: We’ll get into that in a bit. What I think is interesting, you talk about this in the book too is that colleges never, even in starting the 1950s after the GIs came home, the GI Bill and they started to be able to college on that tuition, that a scholarship, colleges even said the purpose isn’t to get you a job, the purpose is to create well-rounded citizens. Why did employers start looking to a college degree as a way to filter out employees and it became like the de facto like if you don’t have a college degree, need not apply.

Ryan Craig: Well, that’s exactly right. It has become a sorting mechanism for employers and it makes sense right? If your most talented and motivated young people are being directed by their parents and the culture in this one institution, then of course employers looking for the most talented and motivated young employees are going to look at those institutions and the credentials from those institutions as an important if not the most important signal for determining where and who to hire.

Yes there was and continues to be value added by these institutions but from where I sit, it looks to me a lot more like self selection. Those families and students who are directed to and have the wherewithal and grit to complete the four year 120 credit experience are going to be good employees for the most part. That’s where college as a signal began to emerge.

Brett McKay: It just shows that you’re conscientious, you can show up on time, meet deadlines, et cetera.

Ryan Craig: That’s the positive way to look at it. The negative way to look at it and the way that many people do is it also means that you have the wealth and family support and family stability to not only get into college, but to be supported through college. And of course, that’s not true for the majority of the country. Not everyone is well to do. What once was in the 60s and 70s really an engine of social mobility in many ways has become a brake on social mobility due primarily to the cost.

Brett McKay: Right, right. You know it’s interesting, colleges also say, “We’re here to educate you.” Once you finish your four years of an education or five for a lot of people, you’re supposed to think better. But, you highlight a research that a lot of college graduates, they’re really no better than they were when they started.

Ryan Craig: That’s right, there’s a lot of research on that. There’s a great piece of work from about six years ago called Academically Adrift, which shows that you test folks coming in and coming out and you see for a substantial percentage of college students really no significant improvement in terms of their cognitive skills. That’s an issue. But, the single biggest change that we’ve seen over the last 20 years and in higher, and of course, this is driven by the cost, which I know we’ll get into.

It’s just that if this focus on employment, colleges have always said that; we prepare you to be a good citizen, we prepare you for your fifth job not your first job. We know now and this is crystal clear from the research that if you don’t get a good first job out of college, you’re probably not going to get a good fifth job. Underemployment is often acute in terms of salary differential and persistent meaning that if you’re underemployed in your first job, two thirds of the time you’re going to be underemployed five years later, half the time you’ll be underemployed 10 years later.

And of course, underemployment often means that you’re in a job that never required a college degree to begin with. And so, raises the question of why did you make that investment?

Brett McKay: I thought that was interesting because colleges know that employers use a degree as a way to filter potential employees. They know it’s a way to get a job, but a lot of them don’t want to take responsibility for that and say, “No, we’re not here to help you get a job. We’re here to just make sure you become a better thinker, a better citizen et cetera.”

Ryan Craig: You know, colleges were not designed with a interface to the labor market in mind. Think back to the origins of the institutions, why they were formed, how they emerged out of the churches. In fact, the first professions of course colleges for was to work as clergy. So, trying to figure out how to prepare people for entry level digital marketing jobs was not their priority.

That’s obvious when you take a look at how colleges are organized. There’s one department within the institution that is peripheral, not highly ranked in the organization is called Career Services. You look at any institution where that reports and reports to someone, who reports to someone, who reports to someone, who reports to the Provost, who reports to the president. So, it’s not a priority and the fact that it is a separate part of the university just sends the signal that it’s the responsibility of that one unit are not the responsibility of anyone else at the institution.

That is largely the attitude across colleges and universities; we’re not responsible for that. That’s something that you do. The reality was that when faculty and administrators were at school 20, 30, 40 years ago, it wasn’t nearly as big of a problem. It wasn’t nearly as big of a problem because A, they didn’t have $40,000, $50,000 of student loans to pay back. And B, you didn’t have the employability problems that we have now which are a function of A, how quickly the economy is digitized.

B, the fact that colleges and universities are bad at aligning their curriculum with employer needs. C, And this is probably the most under-recognized element, is that hiring has changed. The way that students actually get their first jobs, that whole process has changed from even 10 years ago.

Brett McKay: We’ll walk through how that process has changed here in a bit. Here’s the question, why … Everyone knows college has just gotten super expensive, it’s way, way expensive. Where is all that money going? If we’re not creating better thinkers, if it’s not helping people get better jobs once they graduate, where’s the money going?

Ryan Craig: That’s a great question. Unfortunately, colleges and universities measure themselves today not on outputs or outcomes for students, which could include graduate income or employment, but rather on things that are actually easy to observe and measure. Think about it from the standpoint of a trustee of a college. You probably go to four meetings a year, maybe you have phone calls in between, but you’re not steeped in the life of how that school operates on a day to day basis. That’s not the job of a board member or a trustee.

So, you look at the things that are actually easy to measure. What are those things? Well, you can look at your research dollars, the research funding that comes in. That’s an easily quantifiable number. You can look year to year at grants and so forth. You can look at rankings, that’s an obvious and important one. Some presidents live or die based on whether they’re improving or declining in the US News rankings or any of the other 20 or so rankings that have followed US News into the rankings bracket.

The third would be real estate, which is just simply looking outside and seeing a great new building that has gone up. That’s easy to observe and trustees measure the performance of their management teams leadership of the university on that basis. Then the fourth believe it or not is athletics, how your teams are performing. Critically if you’re from a big school, division one school of football, basketball.

I’d put those fort together; research rankings, real estate and you’ll have to pardon me, rah R-A-H for sports as the four Rs. They’re the easy inputs to observe and that’s how most trustees hold their management teams accountable. But of course, that has got nothing to do with outcomes and student welfare unfortunately.

We’re in a world where your typical … And I’ve made this point, actually in my prior book called College Disrupted, that in a not for profit or public organization, often there are so many bottom lines that there’s really effectively no bottom line. What are you holding the president, the provost and your leadership team of the university accountable to as a board member?

The answer is that it’s not simple. There are often so many bottom lines, there’s no bottom line at all. In many universities, it’s really the leadership, the president if they’ve been serving for a long time that really is driving the process with very little real board or trustee oversight. So, governance is a big problem in higher education.

Brett McKay: You also highlight too that a lot of money, you’d think we’d hire more teachers, but a lot of universities end up hiring more support staff to support all these things that they’re also investing in. Real estate, athletics, et cetera.

Ryan Craig: Yeah, absolutely. We call them the dean lets. If you look at the number of administrators at any college today versus 330 years ago, it’s just astounding, it’s astounding. If you look at the increase in spending, increase in spending, that’s obviously reflective of the tuition which has really been twice the rate of inflation for the past 30, 35 years, which obviously is driving the whole student loan and affordability problem.

But if look at the growth of administrators, you don’t see an increase in spending actually in the classroom for the most part. Now, there are some institutions that are exceptions to that but for the most part, the spending has all been ancillary to the core educational experience.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about this student debt crisis. Young people, they bought into the idea because that’s how it’s been for a good 40 years, 50 years, 60 years. If you wanted a good job, you go to college, so they go to college. Back in the 50s and 60s like when my parents were in college, 70s, they were telling me tuition cost and I was like, “Jeez!” That was like the cost of books.

So, it made sense. You could go to college because you could afford it. But now because of rising cost, you have to take out all this enormous amount of student debt but you’re told it’s okay to take out that debt because you’re going to owe the payback because it’s going to allow you to get a good job. But, that’s not happening anymore. Why not? What’s happened? Besides increasing tuition cost, why isn’t college paying off like it used to maybe even like 10, 15, 20 years ago?

Ryan Craig: First on the affordability, you’re absolutely right that in the 70s and even in that the first half of the 80s, you could literally pay for your tuition by taking a part-time job during the year, plus a summer job you pay the whole thing. You’d take on no debt. We’re in a different world now. The average student is graduating with about $40,000 in student loan debt. You have horror stories of course of students with hundreds of thousands of student loan debt. Typically, that’s including graduate school as well.

But, it’s a huge problem. Up until now, colleges and universities have justified that under the banner of well, a college degree is a college degree. This is what the elite schools charge, the most selective schools, the Ivy League schools charge, so we can charge some discount to that. We’ve got some sort of anchor price in the market that right now is about $60,000 a year just tuition.

Let me remind folks that if you’re going to school in a big city, and increasingly students are opting for large urban schools, the cost of room and board can be another $15,000, $20,000 a year. Add that to the bill and you see how cost and debt can add up quickly. But the big problem is now … the affordability would still work if 90% of students came out and were going into entry level jobs making $50,000, $60,000 a year at companies.

That’s not happening. It’s not happening for the three reasons I mentioned before. One, the economy is digitized, which means virtually every good job that a college grad is going to want is going to require some sort of digital or software skills. Colleges aren’t teaching those skills. You look at … The most commonly used SAS platform in the market is Salesforce.

There may be 20 schools out of 4,000 in the country that actually provide any material training on the Salesforce platform, and it’s obvious why. Individuals who go into academia and want to teach, they don’t want to teach Salesforce. They view that as vocational training, that’s beneath them. But, that’s actually what employers are looking for. If you look at over the last 10 years in job descriptions for entry level jobs, technical or digital skills now outnumber all other skills in those job descriptions.

Because it’s so easy now to apply for an online job posting, virtually every job posting generates 300, 400, 500 resumes and no human hiring manager is capable of sorting through those resumes. So, these employers use applicant tracking systems, which are keyword based filters and if you don’t have the requisite density of keywords which are increasingly digital, software oriented keywords, you’re not going to visible to employers.

That’s a huge problem and increasingly, these entry level jobs do require managing some sort of business process through some software platform. That’s what these jobs require and college students aren’t getting them from college. I have no quibble despite what I mentioned about Academically Adrift before, with the level of cognitive skill development that colleges do. I think it’s as good as it was 30 years ago, 50 years ago, maybe better.

The problem is that the employer market, the hiring market has changed. How hiring works has changed and what employers are looking for has changed. Colleges have not come close to keeping up. I tell a story in the book that I’m fond of that describes the attitude of your typical college. There was an article last year in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is the trade paper of America’s colleges and universities.

It was about how Texas A&M University somehow miraculously managed to develop a cybersecurity degree program in less than two years. There was celebration about that, but then there was this paragraph which said but, critics are asking whether or not the university is wasting its time by doing this. Because, won’t the skills that are in the curriculum in this program, won’t to be obsolete in five years time?

That is an attitude you just don’t see in any other industry. Does Apple not develop an iPhone because it’s going to be obsolete in five years? Does Boston Scientific not develop a new medical device because it’s going to be obsolete in five years? But in higher education, that really is the prevailing view, is that we don’t want to or need to align our curriculum to employer needs because employer needs are going to change and what we’re teaching is eternal. I think that properly characterizes the attitude.

Brett McKay: So, students are going into debt to go to college. They’re graduating, they don’t have the skills they need that employers are looking for, so they end you; they may not be unemployed but as you said, they’re underemployed. They end up with a job that’s paying far less. Basically, they probably didn’t need a college degree to even do that job.

Ryan Craig: That’s right. We say underemployment is acute and persistent, so it’s a real problem. Students are very focused now. Students get this, their parents are increasingly getting it, is that it’s really about the first job. Again, not discounting the importance of developing the critical thinking and cognitive skills and executive function. Everything that’s going to make you successful and a good citizen, all that is important as I say in the book.

But right now, we have a situation where economically, the millennial generation is really bleeding out on the table. It really calls for triage. We’re very focused on fixing the economic situation. Millennials have fallen far short of prior generations on really every economic benchmark. In terms of wealth, income, home ownership, new business creation, you name it. They’re behind Generation X, behind the Boomer generation and now Gen Z has entered college.

Are we going to have a second generation go through it? The impact is severe. I mean, you look at millennial’s attitudes towards capitalism for example, millennial are skeptical as a group of our market economy. A majority of them in a poll two years ago state that they think socialism would be a good idea and I can’t blame them. It’s a function of the economic outcomes that they’ve seen, which is a direct product of these two crises of affordability and employability.

Brett McKay: We’ve done a good job I think of painting the doom and gloom of the situation. Let’s talk about, what can we do about it? You’re highlighting as you said, cheaper, faster alternatives to college that are actually giving people the skills they need to get that good first job. You talk about what you call last mile programs as these alternatives. What makes a program a last mile program?

Ryan Craig: Last mile training is a concept that really upends how we’ve thought about education. Historically it’s all been from left to right. You start with you know K-12, and higher ed has been about, how do you take someone with a high school education and make them more educated? That worked up until maybe 10, 15 years ago and then it was broken down for all the reasons we’ve described.

Last mile training starts with the job, it starts with the employers. It goes right to left if you will. The question is, what is the employer looking for, for these entry level jobs and how do we deliver that as quickly and inexpensively for the student as possible, with as few frictions as possible?

The labor market if you look at it, you could conceive of it as … And the reason is … Meanwhile, there are nearly 7 million unfilled jobs in this country, the majority of which are high skill, middle skill jobs. Employers simply aren’t finding the talent for these jobs. Why is that? Well, we have these frictions.

On the student side, it’s the cost of upscaling the time required to get those skills and the uncertainty of an employment outcome. The concept of last mile training is deliver what employers are looking for and hopefully reduce those frictions as much as possible and you can do that with an approach which is faster and cheaper.

If you look at what employers are missing, they’re missing primarily digital skills. There’s an element of soft skills, there’s element of familiarity with the industry, but it’s primarily training on digital skills, on software, on software platforms, on SAS platforms, and in coding. But of course, it’s diverse across a range of industries. This is not just training for tech jobs, it’s training for tech enabled jobs across every industry.

The best example would be someone who operates a Salesforce platform for example, or even an entry level sales person. A decade ago, you would have hired someone out of college for an entry level sales job and not expected really any direct sales experience let alone technology experience. Today, most of those jobs ask for two to three years of experience on a Salesforce platform. That’s the problem.

Last mile training addresses that gap and reduces the frictions for the candidate. Reducing the cost, reducing the time, and increasing the likelihood of a good employment outcome. The first last mile training programs that we saw originated about seven years ago now. They were these coding boot camps, and they were typically programs for college graduates who were coming out into underemployment.

There’s a company Galvanize that we’re involved with. They’re primarily college grads, but increasingly we’re seeing students without college coming into these programs. What they’re teaching you in three or six months is exactly what employers are looking for. And, it’s not just coding. We see it now in business intelligence or data analytics, we see it in digital marketing, and we see it again in tech enabled jobs across a wide range of platforms.

Those boot camps, they would charge tuition but the outcomes that they would achieve for their students were great. You would have something like 90% placement out of those programs into $60,000, $70,000 a year jobs, which is of course the college; the outcome. The outcome the colleges are supposed to be achieving. That was what I call version 1.0 of these last mile training programs. We’ve now progressed to version 2.0 and 3.0, both of which are even better deals for students.

Brett McKay: The way you described boot camps, they’re super intense. They’re like you said, just three to six months. And besides learning those really specific concrete skills the, I understand how they work, you would be on a team and you have a project you’d have to complete within a certain amount of time that’s basically simulated a type of project you would do in like, on the job thing. So, you also learn those soft skills of teamwork, collaboration et cetera right?

Ryan Craig: That’s exactly right, yeah. It doesn’t feel like school. You’re not going into a class. Now of course, they are introducing concepts to you, but that’s probably maybe 10, 15, 30 minutes and then you get to work. You get to work and you’re working in teams, you’re working in … It’s a real work environment.

Often these are projects that actually come from the employers who are looking to hire these grads in the first place, which makes it even cleaner. So yeah, it’s effective that … And students, students are there from eight until eight at night. It really is an intense, immersive experience. You can imagine what level of skill development you can achieve over a three or six month period in an environment like that.

Brett McKay: You mentioned that was the first version, 1.0. What is version 2.0, 3.0 of these alternatives to university looking like?

Ryan Craig: Version 2.0, or what I call income share programs. If you think about these education frictions that I mentioned before, just reduce the friction even further by not charging tuition up front. Coding boot camps that charge tuition, they would offer private loans and so forth. There are some students who simply can’t afford the $10,000, $15,000.

Income share removes that friction by the school effectively lends the money to the student and takes it back as a percentage of their income over a defined number of years. So, the school is really taking the financial risk, not the student. That sends a great signal to the student that the school has skin in the game and is going to be very focused on getting a good employment outcome for the student.

These income share models, they all have income floors so if you don’t have a good employment outcome, you’re not going to pay anything. Typically that’s $30,000, $35,000 a year. They’re limited in terms of the amount that’s shared. It’s typically no more than 15% and it’s time capped and dollar capped as well. So, typically no more than three, four years and you’re never going to pay back more than a certain amount.

If you will, it’s sort of like a student loan with insurance. If you get a bad outcome, you don’t pay it back. We see those programs proliferating across the country. It’s just a cleaner way to do it. Just removes the friction and it means that pretty much anyone who’s qualified can enroll in one of these last mile programs.

Brett McKay: That’s pretty amazing because with student loans, you can take out much loans as you want conceivably, but you can’t default that. If you don’t get a good job, you’re stuck with it no matter what.

Ryan Craig: Yeah, and you default. One thing we didn’t talk about is the impact of default. There are millions of millennial who have defaulted on their loans and that’s going to really limit your life prospects I mean, that’s something that will be on your credit forever. It’s a stain that you can’t wash away. So, that’s version 2.0.

Version 3.0 is what we call employer pay models. This simply eliminates different altogether because not only is there no tuition because the end employer is paying, but they’re guaranteeing a job. Typically what happens is, the program hires you from day one. You’re being paid to go to school. This is really the best of both worlds and these are the programs that we see scaling fastest.

They really fall into two categories. The first are what we call staffing models. These are actually intermediaries that act as staffing or placement companies. Their business is getting you the job and solving a talent or skills gap issue for their clients. If you qualify, they invest in you. They invest in your training. They pay you the cost of training. Some of them may even put you up at an apartment for the duration of the training.

In return, you commit to work for that company for probably no more than two years and to relocate to where the work is. A free location is in fact required, and they’re going to place you with one of their clients. You will remain an employee of them for that timeframe.

The beauty of these models is that not only does it eliminate the education friction, but it actually eliminates the whole other friction, which is why we have a big skills gap in this country, which is called hiring friction, which is why employers are less likely today than they were 10, 15 years ago to take a flyer on someone with no relevant experience for an entry level job.

There was a study a few weeks ago that showed that 60% of so-called entry level jobs actually had affectively work experience requirements. We see fewer of these entry level jobs in America than we did 10, 15 years ago. Employers need to be convinced to take a flyer on someone. These models are great because they eliminate hiring friction by allowing employers to essentially try before they buy.

Employees aren’t hiring out of the gate. They’re working with the intermediary, the last mile program. The last mile program is absorbing all the risk away from the student and the employer, and providing what we call a frictionless pathway to a great first job.

Brett McKay: This also sounds like an apprenticeship.

Ryan Craig: Yeah, it’s similar to an apprenticeship, similar to an apprenticeship. The other model which is its cousin is what we call the outsourced apprenticeship. Now, apprenticeships in America have had a troubled history relative to some European countries where apprenticeship is more established.

In this country we’ve had a hard time really expanding apprenticeships outside of the traditional building and industrial trades where they remain prominent. There are about half a million Americans at any given time doing apprenticeships, but they’re almost all in those traditional blue collar building and industrial trades.

We see a huge potential for apprenticeships to explode across a wide range of new economy, digital economy jobs, but it’s not going to happen at the end employer. If you go to Bank of America and you ask them, “How many apprentices would you like to have in your apprenticeship program?” They’re going to tell you, “We’ll take five,” or twelve. They don’t want hundreds of 18, 19 year olds running around their offices.

We see the future as these, what we call outsourced apprenticeships, which is when your service provider, your digital marketing service provider, your cybersecurity service provider, your cloud service provider, your software development service provider, your HR, accounting, any service that you outsource we see the emergence of an outsourced apprenticeship model where that service provider can essentially amplify their value proposition by also offering talent. It’ll be those service providers who will operate these apprenticeships. We’re seeing the emergence of those as well.

Brett McKay: What’s the application process like for these things? Because, it sounds like the employer is taking a lot of risk by paying for this. I’m sure they want to make sure they get students that they know are going to finish the program and eventually be profitable for them. How do they filter that out? I’m sure it’s pretty competitive.

Ryan Craig: It’s more competitive now than Harvard. As you can imagine, if you go out there … Given student preferences today and what we call the employment imperative, if you go out with an offer, which is guaranteed job at no cost to you, you get up to 100 applicants for every place. The key is, and what we’re most focused on is helping to grow the number of seats in these programs.

And again, it’s not the end employer who’s taking the risk, it’s the intermediary who’s taking the risk. It’s the staffing company, it’s the service provider who’s essentially investing in the student and hopefully will be getting a pay back over time as they eliminate the hiring friction for the end employer and make a premium for the one or two year trial period.

But yeah, they’re selective and they’re sorting primarily on cognitive skills right now. Often they’re using tests and other measures. They’re not using degrees, I’ll tell you that. They’re using tests and advanced interview techniques. They try to assess whether you have the basic cognitive framework so that in a three month period or six month period with the last mile program, you’ll get all the additional skills that you’re missing.

But again unlike employers, they’re not putting those digital skills or technical skills at the top of the funnel because they know that they’re able to create those, to add those in a relatively short period of time.

Brett McKay: Let’s say you are a young person who’s about to go to college, or maybe you just graduated college. No, let’s focus on if you’re thinking about going to college but you’re thinking, man it’s going to be really expensive. How you did make the decision, should I go to college or should I pursue one of these alternative routes? Do you have any criteria, suggested criteria to help make that decision?

Ryan Craig: Yeah, I have a matrix in the book where again, I think it’s important to recognize that not all colleges are equal. That of our 4,000 colleges and universities in this country, there are only about two hundred that are what I call selective, meaning they admit fewer than 50% of applicants. Those colleges for the most part continue to have strong outcomes. Again, you could argue whether that’s a result of value add or the caliber of inputs that they’re attracting, but those colleges are not the issue.

The issue is the other 3,800 colleges and universities. I have a matrix where on the X axis I say is it selective or nonselective? On the Y axis I ask, is it affordable or not affordable? If you’re admitted to a selective school with a financial aid packages, if it’s affordable according to the definition that I have in the book, then no one’s going to be a bigger cheerleader than I am. You should go to that school. There are so many benefits of getting a college degree from a selective school. Go with my blessing.

On the other hand, if it’s a nonselective school and it doesn’t pass the affordability threshold, you should see a bright red light. You are probably making a bad decision to attend that institution and you should look hard at alternatives. In the book we have a directory of 250 of these faster and cheaper alternatives. Many of which are local, some of which are national across the country.

And again, these aren’t programs that lead you into traditional blue collar jobs. They’re not training to be an electrician or a welder. Those jobs are good jobs, should be accorded respect and you make good money for it, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about pathways that lead you to the jobs that college grads want and aren’t getting because they don’t have the technical or digital skills to get them.

Now, the other quadrants are harder. If it’s a selective school but unaffordable, what do you do? I actually suggest bending this affordability rule and being a lot more flexible, being willing to take on more debt to attend a selective school. But again, there’s a price that it doesn’t make sense to pay even for a selective university and you should look at alternatives in that case.

And then, an affordable program at a nonselective university, I’m sort of indifferent about that. If you’re not going into too much debt I don’t have a problem with it but again, it has to be affordable.

Brett McKay: Well, what about parents who are listening and they’re doing like every good parent that they’re told they should do. As soon as your kid’s born, start 529 college savings accounts, start socking a little bit in there because the interest that accrues in that count is tax free.

But, if you don’t use that money at am accredited university and you pull it out, you get, I think 10% is what it is. I’m doing that with my kids and as I’m doing that I’m always worried like man, are they even going to go to college? If they don’t, maybe they do a boot camp or whatever, am I going to have to take this penalty to get this money back out?

Ryan Craig: Well yeah. I mean, it’s never hurts to save. You’re probably not worse off saving and paying that penalty than you were not investing in that plan and paying taxes the other way. I’m not going to tell everyone that it’s a bad idea to save. I think you should. If you can save, you should save. It will come in handy.

But again, I think what’s going to happen is that we’ll see a fracture here between those schools that are selective and producing good outcomes, and people will be willing to spend good money on those schools, and schools that aren’t. Frankly, it won’t make sense to spend that kind of money for the outcomes that those schools are achieving. So, I think there probably will be 10 years from now parents who have 529 plans that find that they probably don’t have a reason to spend it because their child wasn’t admitted to a selective university and has opted for a faster and cheaper alternative over a nonselective school.

Again, this is a cultural deal where it took a period of time to shift to college for a whole and college as the only pathway to a successful career and upward mobility. I think we’re now on the other side of that where over the next decade we’ll see that; it’ll be very clear that there will be hundreds of pathways, not just one. There will be pathways that are very job specific, industry specific, employer specific and it’s going to be confusing. It’s going to be harder.

Lots of families are going to say, “College is simpler and I’ll just continue to go for the tried and true thing.” Again my message is, if it’s a selective school and it’s affordable, go with God but be careful. The questioning affordability becomes real when there are real alternatives out there that lead to good jobs that parents want for their kids. That’s what we’re seeing now.

Brett McKay: It sounds what’s going to happen in the next 10 to 15 years is that college is going to go back to what it was in the 19th century. Basically for rich people to distinguish themselves and there would be these other alternatives for everyone else to get the skills or education they need to get a good job. Is that a good guess maybe? You have fewer people going to college, but people are still doing okay because there are these other alternatives.

Ryan Craig: Well, I hope not. I talk in the book about how selective schools really have an obligation to make sure that they’re not just serving the rich, but they’re serving those who will benefit most from the experience. I raise the concept of what I call distance traveled, which is to say that you shouldn’t admit someone because they’re on third base, because maybe they were born on third base. You should admit someone who actually hit a triple to get to third base.

I know that most selective schools think about that. I know that most of them know they could be doing more to do that. But really, your selective schools are; they should be in the business of training future leaders of society and those future leaders need to look like society. They can’t just be for wealthy and privileged and unfortunately, that’s really and in many ways, characterizes the situation today.

They may have a lot of work to do to avoid that, what I would call dystopia that you just mentioned. And again, my point is not that we should see or want to see a reduction in the aggregate or capital level of post-secondary education in our country. That would be economic suicide. What I am arguing for is a radical restaging of how that post-secondary education occurs, which to say you don’t have to eat it all in one sitting.

You should be able to in three months, six months take a last mile program, get a good first job, which is going to an entry level job in an industry where there’s a clear career pathway. Do that job for two, three years, look around and figure out what else you need because you are going to need more. There’s no question; your cognitive skills, your leadership skills, your management skills, you’re going to need to do more.

I talk in the book about how it’s really going to be incumbent on colleges and universities to then provide those secondary and tertiary pathways young people will need. So, at the end of the day, whether you went to college and got it all done at once or whether you did a faster and cheaper pathway leading into a first job and then did a secondary pathway, I think of it like an unbundled master’s program.

You did two or three of those, my hope is you’ll be in the same place but of course that second path where you get a good first job, you get your foot on the first rung of the economic ladder without any debt, that is a sure bet than what we’re seeing today where almost half of students who enroll in college drop out, don’t complete, have debt and those who do graduate, half of them are underemployed at graduation.

What we’re doing now is not working, some segment of the population is going to benefit from the restaging that we’re talking about. Some people in higher ed have talked for years about lifelong learning. Really I think what we’re talking about is how lifelong learning actually comes into existence. It comes into existence by not eating everything in one sitting, but by doing a faster and cheaper pathway. Do a good first job, a secondary pathway, tertiary pathway, and recognizing that learning is never done. There’s more that you’re going to need to do.

Brett McKay: Ryan is there any place people can go to learn more about your work that you’re doing with these alternative schools?

Ryan Craig: Sure. I tweet @ryancraiguv, @ryancraiguv. My firm is called University Ventures, you can find us at

Brett McKay: Ryan great, thanks so much for coming on.

Ryan Craig: This has been fun, thanks Brett.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Ryan Craig. He’s the author of the book A New U, Faster and Cheaper Alternatives to College. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work by going to our show notes at where I can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at We’ve got over 4,000 articles there. Check out if you haven’t been over there. If you haven’t already, I’d appreciate it if you give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot in our rankings and getting the show out there. If you’ve done that already, thank you, please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

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