The 'Bizarrely Authoritarian' U.S. Education System Inspired This Husband and Wife to Co-Found a 'Genius School' for Future Entrepreneurs and Leaders
Traumatized by their own experiences within the U.S. education system, Simone and Malcolm Collins are launching an innovative alternative school "for the entrepreneurs of the world who want to drive their own life."
"I remember when one of the kids ran away, they told us the last kid who tried died of exposure in the desert — but we didn't care, we sat around the radio hearing the progress of the hunt, cheering for him to at least be free," Malcolm Collins, co-founder of The Collins Institute for the Gifted says, recalling the time he spent at a now-shuttered wilderness program for "troubled teens."
It was hard to separate the truth from lies at the camp, as those in charge spun convenient fictions to further an agenda of fear and control. As far as Collins knows, no child actually died trying to escape the facility — though abuse was certainly rampant. During his stay, Collins often resorted to eating insects and desert plants, and, at one point, he weighed just 60 pounds.
Collins was sent to the kind of place most people are only familiar with because of pop-culture references like Holes, the young-adult-novel-turned-film starring Shia Labeouf, which Collins calls a "fairly accurate portrait." More recently, the ugliness of these institutions was thrust into the spotlight with the premiere of Paris Hilton's This Is Paris documentary, which chronicles the socialite's own traumatic experience at Provo Canyon School.
Collins got good grades in school, but he struggled with the "high-authority" environment. Despite not committing any "remarkable offense," he was sent to the camp via a court order. It was around the time of the "kids for cash" scandal, a scheme in which judicial kickbacks led to the increased incarceration of juveniles for trivial offenses. In one of the cases connected to the scheme, a 14-year-old girl was sent to a camp for creating a parody MySpace page poking fun at her vice principal.
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Later on, Collins would thrive in academia, graduating from University of St Andrews with a neuroscience degree and Stanford University Graduate School of Business with an MBA. "It was a really positive educational experience once I got into environments where I had more ability for self-ownership," he says.
Simone Collins, co-founder of The Collins Institute for the Gifted and Malcolm's wife, also had an extremely difficult experience at school, albeit one that looked very different from her husband's. "On paper, I was definitely a success case of the traditional education system," she says. Collins graduated salutatorian of her high school class, valedictorian of her college class, was the president of clubs and on the varsity swim team — but she was deeply unhappy, ultimately becoming anorexic to the point of organ failure, which led to osteoporosis and permanent fertility issues.
It would turn out that Collins, like her husband, wasn't neurotypical, and struggled in a rigid system that wasn't built for neurodiverse individuals. As an adult, Simone Collins would be diagnosed with autism — a condition often overlooked in girls and women because it presents so differently than it does in boys and men.
When the Collinses became parents, they worried that their own children would face the same challenges within the mainstream education system, and, upon graduation, lack the professional development necessary to set themselves up for success in today's world. So, they set out to reimagine what publicly funded education at the middle school and high school levels could look like.
The Collinses are no strangers to the corporate world or innovative models; they're currently helming Travelmax, a corporate wholesale travel agency, and have been one of the first married couples to tackle the search-fund realm as a pair. Simone Collins was also the managing director at Dialog, a secret society co-founded by Peter Thiel. Their work has helped them build a vast network of high-profile individuals, and today, the Collins Institute for the Gifted counts Santa Fe Institute, Metaculus, Clearer Thinking and The University of Austin among its partner organizations.
What's wrong with the U.S. education system today?
"The traditional school system, if you view it from an external lens, is sort of bizarrely authoritarian," Malcolm Collins says. He points out that most adults would take issue with the system's restrictive expectations: being told where to be at a specific time and what to do, always under observation. "In the adult world, presumably — now the system doesn't work exactly like this — but when somebody can't be trusted to, at a baseline, 'handle themselves,' and they're a threat to others in society, we put them in prison, and they are observed 24/7," Malcolm Collins says. "They're given this extremely strict regimen, but for kids, we basically apply a system that's needed for the worst kid, to all kids."
The Collinses also consider the current state of secondary education a vestige of the Industrial Revolution, citing the changes that began to unfold at the height of the British Imperial Empire. According to the couple, the Empire's desire to produce "interchangeable cogs" that could be easily slotted into a colonial bureaucracy gave rise to the dominant education program — one that hasn't faded or changed meaningfully in the intervening centuries because it has also served the world of corporate America. Today, the ethos of corporate America is perhaps more tenuous than ever before, as record numbers of employees leave their jobs, with many choosing to chase entrepreneurial pursuits.
"It's so interesting the way entrepreneurship has transformed and that we've moved from a society of the lifelong corporate job to a society where the most stable job you can have is being an entrepreneur," Malcolm Collins says.
Simone Collins adds that in an era of automation and offshoring, those jobs the cog-like system produced workers for are becoming increasingly antiquated. "Anything that is interchangeable and easy to replicate and doesn't necessarily have to do with spiky talents, is literally being made obsolete," Simone Collins says. "So just to survive in our current system, you actually need to have breakout talent. You need to be constantly gap-filling to reinvent yourself every four years, because you have to start a whole other career. You have to be able to sell yourself and do all these things. The school system doesn't set you up for them."
Upon graduation from a system lacking relevant professional learning, people are left with "psychologically damaging" results, Malcolm Collins says. "I think a lot of the problems that we're seeing in society right now in terms of mental health are because the school system is meant to make a person useful to society — and it's not doing that right now."
Related: Why Your Mental Health Is the Key to Your Success in Business
What does this alternative school do differently?
At its core, this alternative learning program is a lab school, one wherein rigorous A/B testing within the student body and continual iteration and refinement help shape the pedagogical approach alongside "idiosyncratic experiences" drawn from academic research and the Collinses own experimentation.
The Institute embraces personalized learning, giving students the freedom to design a course of study that reflects their unique talents and interests as it aims to prepare them for success as entrepreneurs and leaders in the modern world. Academics aside, the alternative program also furthers students' professional development and helps them learn essential real-world skills that are rarely taught in middle school and high school: financial literacy, for example, or how to make friends outside of a classroom context — the latter being one of the reasons for the school's proctor system.
"It's the school's version of a homeroom teacher," Malcolm Collins explains, "but they're not really at all focused on the student's education, because that's all managed through the system. They're focused on emotional and social development, on making sure the student is making friends, coaching the student on how to do things like that. Coaching the student in their development of their identity and their social interactions, so they don't spin out there, and we can catch problems."
Malcolm Collins describes what a day in the life of an Institute student might look like. "I, as a kid, log in to the Collins Institute platform at the beginning of any day, and I choose whichever subject I want to study that day," he says. "And I will be told when I click on that subject, what the next mastery level in that subject is."
"Mastery levels represent concepts that are foundational to more advanced areas of that subject," Simone Collins explains.
"Then under that, it will give you recommendations of where you might learn that skill set," Malcolm Collins continues. "So it could be YouTube videos. It could be Khan Academy, it could be field experiments. It could be a Wikipedia article. And there will be a place where you can book private time with a tutor as well if you feel you work best through one-on-one instruction. Then, whenever you think you'll be ready to pass the mastery level, you book the test."
Every day, students have complete control over their instruction and instructional materials, though they are required to demonstrate mastery of essential subjects. The Institute's testing-credit system is designed to prevent students from falling extremely behind in any one area; for example, if a student doesn't love math and therefore isn't as far along on the math testing track, the credits he or she earns for a test increase the further behind he or she is in that subject. It's the Institute's attempt to address the intrinsic- versus extrinsic-motivation problem.
"Our school is like the entrepreneurs' experience, while traditional schools are like the corporate America experience," Simone Collins says. "Because just as with any entrepreneur, [students will] start their day seeing where they're most behind."
"The truth is that kids do need some extrinsic motivation in some areas," Malcolm Collins says, "and this system organically notices those areas and begins to apply that extrinsic motivation."
The Collinses recognize that this alternative learning program won't work for every student — only those who are self-motivated and exhibit an "I will" attitude. "Our big long-term ambition is to be an alternative to public school, fully publicly funded, for the top 20% of self-motivated students with initiative," Simone Collins says. "I'm not saying IQ. Basically it's for the entrepreneurs of the world who want to drive their own life."
Most of the Institute's students will follow their curriculums at home, or, eventually, at local community partner organizations, but there will also be an option for a "worldschool" component, allowing students to travel and immerse themselves in new languages and cultures. What's more, the Collinses note that such global exploration won't be hindered by cost. "New York City annual public school spending per student is $30,772," Simone Collins says.
"With that amount, you could easily have a student traveling the world, living in developing countries, experiencing different cultures," Malcolm Collins adds, "because it requires less constant oversight than traditional school systems."
The Collinses envision the Institute's "worldschool" as mirroring the experience of "a Grand European tour" or that of an elite boarding or magnet school — all for lower than the cost of public education.
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How does this alternative education program push students to go the extra mile?
Another key facet of the Institute is its mentorship program, which fuels students' intrinsic motivation for certain subjects with expert guidance.
"We have a large network of people who are really high profile who want to work with and help students," Malcolm Collins says. "So when a student is three years or more ahead in any particular subject, they can start pitching projects to do with these high-profile individuals." For example, if a student were to be several years ahead in biology, he or she could pitch a project to a high-level professional at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
"And this is also where we are trying to incorporate more entrepreneurship as soon as possible into kids' lives," Simone Collins adds. "So if someone's really passionate about a particular thing, part of what we're doing too is saying, 'Okay, do you want to start a business around it? Let's do it.'"
The Collinses want to empower students to pursue their entrepreneurial endeavors by giving them the professional learning they need to succeed: how to raise money, develop a product, pitch their ideas and more. It's why sales is a core class at the Institute; to compete today, students need a set of nuanced skills, such as finding someone's email address or A/B testing a cold-email campaign. The goal is to help students become "real-world" players in their chosen fields.
Related: 4 Ways to Make the Most of A/B Testing Right Away
What does this alternative school have planned for its inaugural class — and the future?
In keeping with the Institute's "I Will" not IQ credo, applicants must submit a project proposal with "scope, vision and ambition" with a timeline for completion, and if accepted, their admission is contingent on the project's execution and results — always keeping in mind the resources an applicant may or may not have at his or her disposal, and adjusting expectations accordingly. It's an admission process already proven by the Schmidt Futures Rise program.
The Collinses anticipate a modest inaugural class for the Institute — likely capped at eight students (allowing for more than one venture-capitalist mentor per student). The smaller class size is very intentional, as the couple wants to begin to prove the alternative education program's methods before extending acceptances to more students. "An important thing to remember if you're trying to reinvent the schooling system is that if you mess up, you could destroy a person's life," Malcolm Collins says.
"There's a reason why alternate models of schooling haven't really been attempted," Malcolm Collins continues. "And this is the thing that really shocks me — if you look at the educational field, almost everything that's been tried has been iterated: Can we take classes and put them online? Can we take teachers and replace them with AI so that the experience can be more personalized? No one has just thought, 'Can we just reinvent everything from the ground up?' Because it is such a risk to the individual lives of the students who you are putting through this process."
Given the evolving state of entrepreneurship and corporate America in the world at large, it's a risk the Collinses are willing to take.