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Why the Traditional 4-Year Degree Isn't Cutting It Anymore The college-education track rarely challenges students to seek real-world experience (and often creates a mountain of debt). The two cofounders behind MissionU see another way.

By Jennifer Spencer Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Prasit photo | Getty Images

Several decades ago, the United Sates' educational system simply worked. A college degree was affordable, and graduates secured offers for higher-paying jobs by virtue of earning those degrees.

Sadly, this is no longer the case. A college degree isn't the stepping stone it once was to a better job and a better life. In fact, studies show that while less than 20 percent of college graduates leave campus with a job, a staggering 80 percent leave buried in debt. One student's experience illustrates the difficulty: Karen Mora Lopez recently had to drop out of a work-study business administration program at Pepperdine University because she couldn't afford the steep tuition and already had a full-time job.

High-school graduates advance to college for one major reason: They believe a better job will lead to a brighter future. Even as greater numbers of young Americans head to college, fewer are seeing the return on their substantial investments of time, effort and money.

Something has to change.

MissionU CEO and cofounder Adam Braun recently appeared as a guest on the Breaking into Startups podcast to talk about his company's vision. Braun believes higher education should give more than it takes -- and that's far from the current reality. During the podcast, hosts Ruben Harris and "Die Hard Twins" Artur and Timur Meyster learned how Braun is trying to reinvent the college experience. Braun thinks his solution might just be the fix America needs. Whatever the answer, there are compelling reasons why the traditional four-year degree isn't cutting it in the modern economy.

Related: Is College Education Dead?

Debt is a dream-killer.

College tuition continues to skyrocket year after year. The current "sticker price" of a moderate in-state public college is around $25,000 per year. A moderate private school averages about $50,000 annually. The unfortunate truth is that student-loan debt now outpaces mortgage and credit-card debt combined in the United States.

And that debt is killing dreams. Recent studies have revealed that young adults are delaying major life milestones due to the sheer mental weight of college debt. They're putting off buying a reliable vehicle or a first home, waiting to get married or have children, and shelving any hopes of traveling to experience new places and cultures.

They're pushing the pause button on living their lives until they have a better handle on managing their debt. That could be well into their forties, when they've built up a career and repaired their credit ratings. Unfortunately, many college graduates never have the means to pay back all the debt they accumulated to pursue higher learning.

Related: Understand Something About Your Student Loans: They're 100 Percent Your Fault.

Before starting MissionU, Braun founded Pencils of Promise. The nonprofit organization has helped build more than 400 schools worldwide. That experience made Braun realize how broken the U.S.'s education system truly is. "No student or parent should be crushed by debt for wanting a better future," Braun said.

He designed MissionU with the student in mind. Students attend and complete the program with no upfront tuition and pay back a percentage of their income once they find success after graduation. "We invest in our students, not the other way around," Braun said.

MissionU offers only those programs that are proven in the real world. The first major, Data Analytics and Business Intelligence, is a relatively new field that's exploded over the past few years. To stay competitive, virtually every company -- in every industry -- recognizes the value of this skill set and hires workers who possess it.

Related: The 3 Education Trends Preparing the Next Generation of Entrepreneurs

Education doesn't equal success.

What does that degree hanging on your wall actually mean? Does it guarantee you'll land a successful job? That you're prepared for the "real world" the day you walk the stage? You already know the answer. Going to college doesn't equal getting a good job. Having a degree proves you're able to learn, and that's it.

The typical college setting doesn't teach several of the skills that graduates need after they leave campus. Real-life experience has proved much more valuable than classroom education alone, yet so many students complete their degrees with no internships or hands-on work.

Related: Do You Need a College Degree to Be Successful?

MissionU recognizes the most valuable learning comes from doing. An impressive one-third of the MissionU experience is dedicated to learning about the real world, honing practical skills and developing leadership traits. MissionU also has partnered with leading companies to ensure students learn what they need to know to succeed in the jobs for which they plan to interview. Current partners such as Spotify, Uber and Lyft also get access to top graduates from the program. Feedback from these partners keeps the program relevant for graduates as well as for the companies that eventually hire them.

Hiring managers don't make offers based on degrees.

While most companies have a check-off box for degree earned, most hiring managers know the piece of paper doesn't mean much when it comes to success in the workplace. Most colleges aren't connected to the companies that are potentially hiring their graduates, and this is where the disconnect occurs.

Without a continuous feedback loop, universities remain unaware of the qualities that hiring managers prize above others. Braun went on a "listening tour" to meet with powerful investors and CEOs -- including MissionU cofounder Mike Adams. During these sessions, Braun's sole purpose was to learn what each business leader sought in her or his employees. Then, he designed MissionU around teaching those skill sets.

Related: 8 Certifications That Actually Impress Recruiters

As more millennials move into hiring positions, it's becoming increasingly common for companies to make hiring decisions based primarily on three factors. And none of them has anything to do with a traditional four-year degree.

  1. Experience Level: Managers want to know about experiences and training that pertain to the job at hand. Earning straight A's in calculus is impressive, but it doesn't directly apply to 99 percent of daily tasks in the business world. Instead, managers focus on the level of success candidates have achieved in actual work settings.
  2. Portfolio: Managers want results. Nothing provides evidence of ability like a well-presented portfolio and solid endorsements. New college grads often have only a transcript and a few senior projects to prove they can do the type of work required. It's easy to see why those don't hold up in comparison to real-world work samples and professsional references.
  3. Personality: Experienced managers know hiring the wrong personality can have serious side effects within the team and even can affect the bottom line. Before making a hiring decision, a manager wants to learn about an applicant's value system. This is a fairly reliable predictor of whether the prospective employee be a good fit for the team and the company culture. Will he or she be responsible? Punctual? How does he or she communicate? Soft skills are just as important as hard skills when it comes to successfully integrating and growing in a corporate job. Sadly, very little of the college experience focuses on these soft skills.

Related: Caution! Are You Overlooking Cultural Fit in Recent Grads?

The hard fact is that even after four (very expensive) years, many graduates are unprepared for the job market. Times have changed. Why hasn't our education system? Parents sometimes push their children down the college path with false hopes. America needs a system built for the 21st century -- one that invests in the country's future and succeeds only when its students do. Braun's program takes an innovative approach to helping young people launch successful careers. But it's merely the first step to close a wider gap in the higher-education evolution.

Jennifer Spencer

CEO of Energent Media

Jennifer Spencer is the founder of Energent Media, a digital marketing firm for tech startups. She is passionate about helping brands leverage content to share their stories with the world.

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