The brainchild of entrepreneur Adam Braun – who also started Pencils of Promise, which helps spread education around the globe – MissionU sees its responsibility as an alternative to the high costs of a typical college degree, one where the students pay their tuition only once they have a good-paying job.
“MissionU is a one-year college alternative,” explained Braun. “My motivation in pursuing it came out of seeing someone negatively affected by the system.”
That person was his wife, who struggled to pay back over $100,000 in student loans, even though she left school early due to financial hardship. Braun learned that college debt is the only US debt that cannot be discharged through bankruptcy, and it is burdening thousands of people every year who borrow for higher education, without a guaranteed benefit of a job or a way to pay it back.
“I saw the enormous toll that took on every aspect of her life. I wanted to learn more about the current and future state of higher education. We have a fundamentally broken education system. A one-size-fits-all solution bachelor's degree does not work,” said Braun.
Braun had been focused on his Pencils of Promise movement, which has been instrumental in bringing education to places it is desperately needed around the globe. But here at home, he saw a great need to help reform higher education and the financial problems it brings to so many.
MissionU, said Braun, is a modern day – though not accredited – college alternative. There are no upfront costs for students. The university only gets paid when students land a job earning at least $50,000. When they do, they will pay back 15% of their income for the first three years.
“If you were to start an institution of higher education based on the realities of today and outlook of tomorrow, it would be MissionU. We have an income share agreement. We only recuperate our investment after the student lands a job. Rather than just starting with the needs and preferences of academics, we align with companies – the leaders of new economy,” he said.
Braun has talked with many of those economy leaders to find out what they wanted out of a new employee, and MissionU built its curriculum around their feedback. C-level folks and company founders of places like Smashd Labs, Warby Parker, Lyft, the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Bonobos and Casper all gave feedback and, in turn, said that they would hire MissionU grads, giving students hope of that first well-paying job.
For now, MissionU has only one major: Data Analytics and Business Intelligence. It’s a relatively new field seeing explosive growth, according to Braun, which is why many companies are hiring those with this skill set. But it’s also about learning skills that translate to any job.
“The majority of jobs in demand 10 years from now don’t exist today – we’re teaching them adaptable skills,” said Braun, who continued that the curriculum also is heavily focused on team-based and collaborative projects. “(We teach) critical thinking abilities that allow you to synthesize challenging problems and come up with new solutions,” he said.
Braun said that the notion of a trade school – which he said is not really what MissionU is but does retain elements of that – are celebrated in Europe, and perhaps his mission is an intersection of traditional, trade and modern elements while teaching real-world issues.
Branding the mission
To help brand this new way of educational thinking, MissionU enlisted Red Antler, a Brooklyn-based agency that helps get new businesses off the ground and noticed.
“Our focus from day one has been on startups," said Emily Heyward, co-founder and chief strategist at Red Antler. “We’ve built our reputation working with companies who are really looking to transform industries – Casper (mattresses), Allbirds (footwear). I hate to use the clichéd word disruptive, but I think that tends to be a theme among our clients. That’s how we’ve grown our reputation as well.”
For Heyward and company, it almost always starts with brand identity and extends into further applications across digital, packaging, industrial design, experiential marketing – whatever the businesses they work with need to get off the ground.
MissionU came to Red Antler to help them bring their vision to life. Braun came to them with a very clear idea of what he was doing, but the missing piece was how that came to life through brand.
A hands-on approach
Red Antler worked extremely closely with Braun and his small team in the early stages of the branding process.
“Adam was unbelievably hands-on. As with most of our clients, the process was very collaborative. The exciting thing about what we do is that the people who are launching businesses have very strong visions and we actually thrive off of that passion. We work with people who have devoted their whole lives to whatever it is they’re launching, so they’re very invested. Every single decision and conversation was made with Adam in the room,” said Heyward.
She called Braun “one of the best I’ve ever worked with for sure. Adam played a huge role in all the work that took shape, but with us pushing him and him pushing us along the way. He had strong opinions about what the brand should feel like, the language. It was a really back and forth, collaborative process.”
A big part of what Red Antler was trying to ascertain with MissionU was what category they were trying to build in the higher education field, knowing they were going up against the traditional, centuries-old institution of college. They wanted to brand it as very new while at the same time driving legitimacy and keeping in mind that parents are the audience, too. The balance of being both a viable alternative to a traditional four-year degree and making it seem like it wasn’t a passing experiment was a challenge for the team.
“It was always about what’s that right balance of not feeling old and stodgy, like a university, but on the flip side, we didn’t want it to feel like a boot camp,” said Heyward. “We wanted to build a brand that had a kind of sense of community attached, and a network. One of the tests we used was: would someone wear this on a sweatshirt? Is this a brand that people actually feel they’re a part of?”
From a communications standpoint, MissionU had to appear that it was being developed with more than just one major in development (there are several, with more to be added), so they had to position the experience as one that set the student up for a high-growth career.
“We wanted it to be focused enough that people understood what it was but that also there’s a bigger vision here,” she said.
Red Antler asked if the school was solving a real problem, and they concluded that yes, it did.
“In the case of MissionU, there’s a real problem that our nation is facing that someone’s going to have to solve, which is that students are being sold on a false promise. The idea that college is a path to success is not true anymore. College grads are ending up with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt and no job. The ROI of college has all but disappeared. We’ve been presented with a lot of people who are finding different solutions and I think in the case of MissionU, it’s such a smart approach, a thoughtful approach. It’s in the service of the students – investing in its students rather than the other way around, and to us that felt like the right path forward,” said Heyward.
They built a strategic idea behind the brand: ‘Clear Path to your Future,' since with a traditional college education, there is no clear indication what happens when you graduate. MissionU, on the other hand, targets students who want to see college as the most direct path from point A to point B.
“It’s not for people who are going to find themselves or attend frat parties or like to hang out on the lawn. This is for people who are really looking for that direct path to success,” said Heyward.
The design and energy tone was built on suggesting momentum and direction, and giving a sense to people that there will be results if they take part in this program. Red Antler shied away from typical college stock photography, using photos of people in motion. That motion also displayed itself in the bright but academic color choices, plus the graphics, which feel like they are moving forward.
First class of the future
The first cohort for MissionU will open nationally in San Francisco in September. The targets were originally New York and San Francisco, where a lot of employers are based. Students must live within 50 miles of the city, since not 100% of the learning is online. Braun hopes to then expand to a second city in 2018, with rolling cohorts throughout the year, and hopefully, if all goes well, adding new cities and new majors. The focus on data analytics, however, is important for Braun and his team, as millions of open jobs require those skills.
The long-term objective Braun sees for the school is in digital marketing, project management, healthcare and nursing. He noted the massive shortage in nursing as an aging boomer population of nurses will be retiring.
MissionU may continue to work with Red Antler on projects moving forward, but right now the budding school is building its reputation through press coverage and word of mouth.
“We’ve spent no money on paid marketing. We launched a new company at a time when this country is really interesting. We’re continuing to tell our story through different channels,” he said.
MissionU will also be highlighting the stories of the students and their families as they find jobs and success. They are also enabling street teams and grassroots movements, like those they developed with Pencils of Promise.
If the success of Pencils of Promise is any indication of how global education can change, MissionU and its branding might just change the way we view the college experience.