In higher education, you can never have it all. Harvard offers an unrivaled brand and resources and an immense social and economic payoff, but the vast majority of applicants are rejected. For those that work like dogs to get in, there’s the eye-watering expense, whether it’s the government, student, or endowment that pays. State universities, on the other hand, tend to be much more accessible and less expensive, but may offer more average resources and return. Online universities are often easy to get in to and allow you to balance work and study, but you spend most of your time interacting with a computer, which for some people feel a long way from the immersive, social ideal of school.

Every innovation, from the public university to distance learning, seeks to reconcile the tensions in what has come before. In turn, each innovation produces its own tradeoffs. The latest turn of the crank is 42.

Named in reference to Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 42 is a self-styled coding university that was started in 2013. Its founders include French tech billionaire Xavier Neil, who ranks 126th on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people, and Nicolas Sadirac, a pioneer of IT education in France and a proponent of “active learning.” Like other coding bootcamps, 42 aims to train a new generation of talent to keep pace with industry. The founders are especially critical of the scale and quality of computer science education in France, but consider this a global problem.

The original Paris campus has 2,500 students, admits 500 students a year, and has received over 200,000 applications to date. In July, 42 will open a second campus with a 200,000-square-foot facility in Silicon Valley. At this new campus, the founders plan to start with over 1,000 students a year, with a goal of training 10,000 students in five years. The US campus is on a site formerly occupied by DeVry University.

The 42 model has three particularly striking features:

  • Free for students. The institution is paid for entirely by the founders, who have committed $100 million so far. Unlike some other bootcamps, graduates do not have to surrender a portion of their salary after they leave.
  • No admission requirements. Anyone can apply to 42, provided that they pass an online aptitude test. There are no application fees. Applicants do not need to have a degree—not even a high school diploma—or prior knowledge of coding. The top candidates complete an on-site, four week coding bootcamp that takes place for 10-15 hours a day, seven days a week. The best third are then admitted and begin a program that takes three to five years to complete.
  • No conventional faculty. Students learn through real-world projects, both individually and in teams. The instructor’s role is confined to occasional guidance and assessing student progress. 42 subscribes to mastery learning. The U.S. campus will be open 24/7.

While a coding university might seem highly specialized, 42’s founders are convinced that their model will turn out well-rounded graduates. Project-based learning, the thinking goes, will ensure a multidisciplinary approach, even if it’s not in the form of a curriculum that most academics would recognize.

In other ways, what makes 42 so disruptive is how conventional it is. It imitates elite universities in several respects: it is highly competitive, values the physical campus, and considers the co-location of students a vital ingredient for learning. Dormitories (also free) are available for students who want them. It even takes a degree-like amount of time to finish. The combination of these “ordinary” features with the extraordinary ones above is what makes the 42 vision so intriguing.

Who regulates 42? The institution does not charge tuition, so it does not need to worry about federal financial aid rules. This faculty-free university will be spared the contortions it would take to comply with the federal faculty-student “substantive interaction” stipulation. Non-participation in federal aid makes regional accreditation optional, and there is no indication that 42 is going down that road. Our reading of the rules suggests that 42 does not even have to bother with the state regulator. California’s Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education exempts schools that do not offer degrees and charge less than $2,500. That may explain why 42 appears not to use the word “degree” to describe its credential.

So is 42 really a breakthrough?

promotional video features a host of tech moguls breathlessly extolling the institutional model, but few graduates have yet to be truly tested. Still, the creativity is evident. The vision promises to tackle some of higher education’s stubborn tensions. It seeks to be both open admission and highly selective, to be location-specific and operate multiple sites, and to offer top-of-the-line facilities and equipment for zero tuition.

Most importantly, 42’s core pedagogical model asserts that particular teaching and learning methods—rather than tradition or delivery mode—are what will ensure both graduate quality and quantity. Few can argue with the logic of problem-based mastery and peer learning, although time will tell whether the model’s rigors are too much for the average entrant. Will the de-emphasis on faculty save the model from being diluted by the interpretations of individual instructors, or will too many students flounder without a guiding hand? Some might argue that a three-to-five-year program is too long in a fast-changing world. Most bootcamps turn out grads in a matter of months.

With the growing concentration of capital in the world economy, 42 may be the harbinger of a new breed of higher education institution. More corporate giants and super-rich individuals may see both commercial and philanthropic value in creating their own universities that are top quality and free of charge, seeing enhanced human capital as a cost of doing business. Cynics might say that Neil, who in 2014 failed in his bid to buy T-Mobile, sees 42 as a clever publicity stunt to massage his long-term interests.

Finally, we cannot help but wonder why coding gets all the attention. Why not launch a university like 42 with an explicit emphasis on liberal education, with coding just one skill among many? Time will tell if this experiment provides the answer higher education is looking for, or whether it simply presents more choices and a new set of tradeoffs to contend with.

 

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