Unexpected Institutions of Higher Learning

When anyone talks to me about higher education, it takes me back to a time I was as clueless as a lost kitten. If you were a bit worried about getting into a college in Tamil Nadu, you would have certainly come across this career consultant called JP Gandhi. 

Students and families would lap up his words played on the tele as though he were the Warren Buffet of Anna University counselling.

Mechanical Engineering will always be the golden subject of the century.

Bio-technology will change the world in another 5 years. I suggest you to take the course at Bogus College of Engineering if you are willing to pursue master’s abroad and get into research.

Basically, every year he says something to the effect of: “Gift yourself a glamorous, golden noose around your neck.”

The problem with career consultants and self-help authors is one and the same. They are nothing more than glorified snake oil salesmen. They are education stockbrokers who aggressively pitch penny stock institutions to make a fortune out of our collective ignorance. The irony is they exist only to validate their own careers. This is why I stay away from people who make a career out of peddling advice.

In 2011, I chose B.Tech Chemical Engineering at my alma mater because I was fascinated by chemistry at school or that’s what I’d like to think. Thankfully, neither JP Gandhi nor Tim Ferris had influenced my decisions. The truth is I was smitten with the way chemistry was taught at school which I prematurely miscalculated as my undying love for the subject. I can already hear a loud gasp from the art students. Had it not been for that one helluva lit teacher, would you have still chosen liberal arts education?

I even dreamt of becoming a scientist at some point. That was the impression I had left over many professors each year which I’m so guilty of. Not a humble brag, just to give you a sense of how deep I was into the system— my alma mater gave me a litany of shiny stuff for my work during college that are currently gathering dust on my LinkedIn profile. A decent climax to this paragraph would obviously be plunging into R&D, which I almost did at Saint Gobain.

But here is the plot twist. I dived head first into Product Marketing.

Once you have invested substantial time and money in a narrative, it gets effing hard to place contrarian bets on yourself. The sunk costs are too high to think about pivoting. Doing so will make you a walking billboard for the world to know of your uninformed decisions in the past. For most people, admitting they were wrong is impractical than taking on debts to validate their previous decisions.

Simply put, the average man fears taking on reputational risks more than financial risks. Fortunately, I was afraid of neither. I broke out of the narrative I had set for myself with the new-found knowledge on startups.

However, I used to suffer from an undiagnosed allergy for computers. One because coding was almost always taught outside the computer. Two, PC and the internet were late entrants in my life.

Turns out that the things we are most resistant are the ones that need studying. It was in my third year of engineering I decided to see where software actually takes me. Of course, all this wandering was possible because I have had some privilege granted. Not many students, especially those from economically challenged backgrounds, can afford to do what I did.

Source: Huffpost

The above is a rhetorical bell curve for people who failed due to the system, survive with some career due to the system and excelled due to the system, respectively. What we need today is people who are successful examples of the system calling out the system for the myth it perpetuates and take steps to align interests with market demands. That’s the only way we can see a real transformation in the education sector.

When I set up this blog, I wanted to write about institutions that are having a profound impact on students, the job market and the pedagogy as a whole. So here are a few unexpected institutions of higher learning that I shall continue to update as and when I come across:

Undoubtedly, topping this list is Zoho University.

I have personally known plenty of people who have gone from not knowing what a computer does to becoming confident full-stack developers and designers.

Take the story of my former colleague Madhubala. On the first day at work, I observed a nimble person furiously typing away at her keyboard. To this day, she continues to be the most inspiring woman I have ever met at Zoho. Having completed her diploma in finance, she joined Zoho University without the slightest clue on how to boot up a computer. She was taught the ABC-s of programming, design and comms while she received a monthly stipend for learning these subjects. How cool is that! By the end of a couple of months, she knew backend programming interested her the most. She was immediately absorbed into a team at Zoho.

Today she mentors fellow conventional graduates in her team and goes an extra mile to learn about topics beyond her ken. This is one among 100 such truly inspiring stories at Zoho University. Although at the surface it might seem like a self-serving concept for the company, the positive impact it leaves on the society in the long run is unquestionable.

Next is Lambda School

I’ve been hearing a lot about this school on Twitter. They don’t take a single dime from you until you get a job. That means, you get to learn programming without any financial pressure. The business model here is income agreement plans in exchange for teaching you how to learn programming. While at the surface it seems like an ideal solution for those looking to break into a new career, the income sharing does add up to the tuition fee for a State University in the US. Which is quite hefty.

Recently, I signed up and got access to their web development materials. It was nothing short of stellar. Apparently, Lambda has students accepted in many tech companies, even well-known ones, in the U.S. They have plans of entering the Indian market as well. So keep an eye out on them.

Young India Fellowship by Asoka University

This is a one-of-a-kind multi-disciplinary programme aimed at creating leaders with a commitment to public service. This programme inducts 300 bright students on an annual basis to explore diverse sectors through projects. They also have good record for placements and I know of alumni who are acing at their workplace. This is probably best for those who are self-starters and want to change things at the grass root levels.

Thoughts on the future

The whole notion of bringing students under one roof is going out of fashion and relevance. I’m willing to bet that we’ll have schools in the future that train parents to become better at homeschooling their children with the available technology. Or, even have institutes that homeschool toddlers. Creche is a callous invention for lazy albeit working parents. With more companies adopting remote work, young parents will have all the time to nurture their kids on their own, without having to outsource it to anyone.

Have you heard of any institution that’s changing the education industry? Let me know in the comments.

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