Adam is a New York Times bestselling author and entrepreneur. He is the Founder of Pencils Of Promise, the award winning organization that has built nearly 400 schools around the world. In 2017 he is focusing on our broken college system by launching MissionU, a college alternative for the 21st century.
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Time Stamped Show Notes
(click the time stamp to jump directly to that point in the episode.)
- [01:12] – Adam was born in New York and grew up in Connecticut
- [01:16] – He traveled the world throughout college which exposed him to the challenges of global education
- [01:30] – In 2008, Adam founded Pencils of Promise
- [01:41] – Everything changed in Adam’s life when he met his wife
- 02:13 – Adam was on episodes 513 and episode 1174 of EOFire
- [02:22] – He made a huge impact on JLD when he first told his story
- [03:03] – JLD wanted to make it to significance in the world and so he partnered with Pencils of Promise for The Freedom and Mastery Journal launches
- [04:16] – In Adam’s 20’s, the most formative thing in his life was seeing the challenges of international education
- [04:26] – His wife grew up in Boston where there is this belief that education is the only way out of financial struggles
- [05:02] – Adam’s wife only did 2.5 years in college and then had to start working
- [05:22] – When Adam met her, she had $110K of college debt and no bachelor’s degree
- [05:33] – Adam asked her to file bankruptcy, but he learned it’s the only debt in the US upon which you cannot declare bankruptcy
- [05:45] – Adam started looking at the data regarding this issue
- [06:19] – “The problem is, we don’t have a lot of other choices”
- [06:25] – This problem led Adam to co-found MissionU, which is a 1-year college alternative that prepares people for jobs – completely debt-free
- [07:12] – What frustrates JLD is that our youth really doesn’t understand the ramifications of carrying huge student loan debt
- [07:58] – There are 25M undergraduates and 4,400 registered colleges
- [08:27] – People who go to college are academically inclined people, coming of age students, and a large amount of career starters
- [09:08] – The connection to your peers, the brand you’re associated with, and the scaffold where you learn skills and gain experience are most important
- [09:28] – The state of higher education has been dependent on the notion that you need to have a bachelor’s degree to get ahead
- [09:42] – For Adam, the majority of young people who are going to college are making a huge mistake
- [12:02] – What students are being prepared for is totally disconnected from the skills they actually need to land a great job
- [12:24] – The cost structure makes NO sense
- [13:10] – When a student gets into MissionU, they invest in that student – not the other way around
- [13:22] – “We commit to investing in you for a full year of our program”
- [14:01] – JLD shares his experience getting into college and the army
- [15:02] – “I got out, and guess what? I couldn’t get a job”
- [15:14] – JLD landed a job for just $31K/year in Boston
- [15:40] – “My 4 years in the army didn’t get me on top of the world. It got me next to where I would have been 4 years ago”
- 16:18 – Check out MissionU
- [16:27] – Anybody can apply, referrals get a $500 credit
- [17:02] – The admissions process for college education needs to change
- [17:43] – What MissionU looks for is TALENT
- [18:38] – 80 – 90% of learning experiences are online and in live, virtual classrooms
- [19:02] – To develop real peer networks, there is a 3-day orientation that happens in-person, monthly meet ups, and a graduation
- [19:32] – For MissionU graduation doesn’t happen at the end, but 6 weeks before the program ends
- [19:42] – The last 6 weeks is a career launch where MissionU prepares their students before heading out for their job search
- [20:24] – Historically, higher education is a capstone on a journey you started as a kid
- [20:42] – The future of education, in general, is the acknowledgement that people will need to stay educated
- [21:23] – The future of higher education is found in lifelong learning
- [22:11] – Each person should recognize that they have the capacity to make whatever dent in the world they believe possible
- 22:30 – Connect with Adam via email
Adam: Yes, I am.
JLD: Yes. Adam is a New York Times Bestselling author and entrepreneur. He's the founder of Pencils of Promise, the award-winning organization that has built over 400 schools around the world. In 2017, he's focusing on the broken college system by launching Mission U, a college alternative for the 21st century. Adam, take a minute, fill in some gaps from that intro and give us a little glimpse of your personal life.
Adam: Sure. Yeah, I was born in the Northeast – I'm kind of born, bred in the Northeast, actually. Born in New York, raised in Connecticut and I ended up spending a lot of time traveling in the developing world throughout college and that's really what exposed me to a lot of the challenges of global education. And, as I've chatted about with you plenty – and you have obviously have been an enormous supporter of the organization –
Adam: – back in 2008 with $25.00 on the side of my job, I founded Pencils of Promise. And, fortunately, what began in hopes of building one school is now over 400 today. And then everything kind of changed for me when I met my wife. Fortunately, this incredible woman brought so much into my life but I also started to see some of the challenges of our broken education system here at home and, ultimately, that's what led to Mission U as well as our newborn twins that we now have, too – that's a big part of my life.
JLD: Yeah, I can imagine. So we're going to be talking a lot today about Mission U and about the broken college system because there's a lot to talk about there. But, first and foremost, Fire Nation, if you recognize Adam's voice, well, he was Episode 513, he was also Episode 1174, and I'll be honest with you, Adam had a huge impact on me back on Episode 513 when he told his story about Pencils of Promise because I actually lived in Guatemala for four months – this is, for me, back in 2007 – and I saw exactly what he saw when he was there and inspired him to go on and do what he did.
And I said, "Man, here's a guy that was in a similar place that I was, saw similar things that I did, but he went off and he's done this with it." I've obviously done some cool things in the world but not to that level of impact. And so, just about 100 episodes later, I interviewed Erin Walker, who uses the phrase "From Success to Significance" and that's what I grabbed onto and I said, "I want to do that. I want to not just be successful in life and business, but I want to add significance to this world."
So I knew that, last year, when I launched my journal, The Freedom Journal, that I wanted to partner with Pencils of Promise in a major way. And we did over $75,000.00 to Pencils of Promise that year because of the great outpouring of support from you, Fire Nation – you were a part of every one of those dollars to build three schools in developing countries and just do some amazing things. So it's just been a great opportunity to be partnered with you, Adam, something that I've grown from me being able to contribute to that and receive the plaques, and see the schools that have been build, and the children that have been impact – it's incredible.
And I love how, No. 1, you just set this up. You created Pencils of Promise and it's working, and it's running, and it's crushing it. And you're like, "You know what? They got it. Now I can go off and do something else and crush it, too," and this is now going to be in the U.S. and this is going to be Mission U. So that's what I want to talk about right now is what led you to focus on domestic education after, for ten years, you were focusing pretty much strictly on international education?
Adam: I think, in a lot of ways, we're guided by the circumstances that our lives put us in. And, in my early twenties, the most formative thing in my life was all these backpacking travels that I was having and what I was exposed to was the challenges of international education in these rural villages that I was spending time in. But, once I met my wife – She's this person who has as much potential as anybody else that you might meet – she came to this country when she was nine and really grew up in the Boston area but got into the colleges the path out of a situation which her family really didn't have financial means as so many young people and their families find themselves in today.
And so we've sold, for decades now, multiple generations of young people on this dream that we call The American Dream that college is your way out of that situation and onto a better life ahead. And the truth is it worked for a long time but, when I listen to my wife's situation which was that she went to college for two and a half years, after those two and a half years due to financial hardship, she had to leave school early to start working and she also couldn't justify that more time in a classroom was going to help better prepare her for a job when the curriculum wasn't connecting to the skills that she wanted.
And, when I met her, several years out of this situation, she had $110,000.00 of college debt with no Bachelor's Degree and, when I talked to her about maybe declaring bankruptcy to almost start fresh, she told me student debt is the only debt in the United States you cannot declare bankruptcy on. And I didn't know that – I thought she was wrong – and, obviously, she was right as I dug into it more and more and I started reading more of the data. It turns out, of all students that enter a four-year Bachelor's Degree program, only 18 percent will graduate on time which is crazy – 18 percent will graduate in four years – and yet we think, "Hey, most people that actually go to go to school are actually going to finish."
So, as an entrepreneur – especially one that's motivated to work on some of society's most challenging problems – this was just so clear to me. And I think about my own kids and what the cost of college will be 18 years from now and it's hard to justify it and the problem is we don't have a lot of other choices and so that's what we set out to build. That's why I cofounded Mission U and Mission U is a college alternative for the 21st century. It's a one-year program and it prepares people for the jobs of today and tomorrow completely debt-free.
JLD: Well, I love this and it just seems like you're always on the "What's next?" A lot of people see what's already come and they're like, "Let me jump on-board with this." You're kind of on that "What's next?" and this is just obviously a great place to be before this wave forms. Because it's definitely going to be forming because people just aren't going to accept when you have the free education opportunities out there and you have all these different things that you can now just literally go to Google and learn so much. Why are we now going to, essentially, handcuff our youth before they get to know it?
JLD: Because what frustrates me, Adam – and we can talk a little more about this later but – a 17-year-old, they don't really know what it means to be $70,000.00, $100,00.00, $150,000.00 in debt because they just think, "Hey, I'm going to graduate. I'm going to get a $75,000.00 a year job – and guess what, they might – but they think, "I can probably pay of that student debt in two years. If I'm making $75K, I can pay off $100,000.00 in two years." That's not what your paycheck looks like when you're making $75K a year. We both know that. So let's talk right now about the current state of the US college system – what really stuck out to you where you just said, "Wow. This is why I need to focus on this"?
Adam: I think the biggest thing, for me, was when I learned how many colleges there are in the United States, how many college students there are, and the breakdown of subsets that attend school. So it turns out you have about 25 million undergraduates in the United States, you have 4,400 registered colleges which is a crazy amount of colleges. Right? I follow college basketball really closely and that's probably half the colleges that I can name just because they're part of my NCAA bracket. Right? But 4,000? That's wild to me. But what was really interesting was when I came across this study and it broke down why people go to college – not the demographics of their background but really the motivations – and it turns out there's really six groups of people that attend college.
There's your academically inclined student who wants to go to Med School or get a PhD, you have your coming-of-age student who wants to spend four years on a leafy green campus and go to frat parties and watch football games, but there's a very large group that are called "career starters" and these are young people that look at college as the pathway to a great job, to a better career ahead and they don't need four to five years. and they don't need to learn the Basics of Historical Literature for $X many thousands dollars per credit – all that content is now free – and so what really is valuable is the connection to your peer set, the brand that you're associated with, and the scaffolded experience that helps you gain the soft skills, the hard skills, and then, ideally, a technical skill.
And you should be able to learn those things without putting yourself in crushing debt. And so, in my opinion, the state of higher education right now is such that we've almost kind of become dependent on this notion that a Bachelor's Degree gets us ahead when, in reality – again, when you look at the statistics – I fundamentally believe that the majority of young people that are going to college nowadays are making a bad decision. The problem is they don't have many other choices and that's where Mission U really comes in.
JLD: Lack of choices is absolutely the reason – there's just no doubt about it – and I love how you broke that down. No. 1, people are just academically inclined – yeah, they might want to be a lawyer, or a doctor and, okay, that's the path you have to go – No. 2, coming-of-age – okay, we get that, understandable – No. 3, career starters – that's when you have to start thinking, "Okay, what does this mean?" Because I remember, Adam, when I was thinking about going to college, one of the things my father said – because that was his generation, he went to Georgetown – he said, "John, you've got to remember, the better the school you go to, okay, it might be more expensive, but the better school you go to, the people that you meet, they're going to be connected and so you're going to get a better job on Wall Street or, X, Y, or Z." Because that was the "Good Old Boys' Club" – the Harvards, and the Stanfords, "We take care of our own, etc., etc.," – the Princetons of the world. So it was that, because you went there, quote/unquote, "Now you're going to get a better job." So, yeah, maybe you get another $100,000.00 in debt but you're going to get this six-figure job that's going to take of that.
So something to definitely think about and I want to go on a quick side tangent because you just really hit a chord with me in a different area: college basketball. I am obsessed – huge, Adam. I don't know if we talked about this last time we were hanging out at Thrive Conference but I went to Providence College, specifically, because the year before they went to the Elite 8 tournament. I was only going to go to a school that went to the Elite 8 tournament. And they went and I was the most passionate basketball fan for those four years. I'm about to go to my 15th year reunion and I'm still the biggest ever. As we're speaking right now, we're on a four-game win streak. We beat Xavier, Creighton, Butler, and Marquette in four straight games.
JLD: When this goes live, let me tell you, my heart will be broken because that's what happens in college basketball – there's only one – but, right now, when we're talking, I'm on Cloud Nine. I'm just going to say that. Who's your team.
Adam: UNC – I was a Michael Jordan fan growing up as a kid so I've always been a UNC fan.
JLD: Alright. We have a word for you – it's just called "bandwagon." No big deal. So why does college not work for most young people. And, again, this is it doesn't work for most young people – why?
Adam: There's two major reasons. The first is that what they're actually being prepared for – this curriculum that's developed on most colleges – is totally and fundamentally disconnected from the skills that you need to land a great job and to thrive in that job. That's the first and largest issue is a total lack of preparedness for the actual workforce that you're going to enter. The second reason that, in my opinion, college doesn't work, is the cost structure makes no sense anymore. So, John, when you or I were in college, maybe an expensive school was $30,000.00, $35,000.00, maybe $40,000.
Today, I was talking to somebody who just went on the tour of NYU. The first thing that the tour – the student who was giving the tour – said to this group of parents and students was, "Hey, I just want to put this upfront. This school is $72,000.00 a year. If that changes your equation, please let us know now before we start the tour." It's crazy how much is being charged. So students are leaving schools with insurmountable, absolutely crippling debt. And so one thing that we're doing at Mission U, the way it works is that, if a student gets into Mission U, we believe that it's our responsibility as an institution to invest in the student rather than vice versa.
And so, if you get into Mission U, there's no tuition at all. We commit to investing in you for a full year – the full year of our program – and then, on the backend of that, if – and only if – you get a job paying you $50,000.00 or more, once you've secured that job – which we, obviously, are very invested in helping you secure, $50,000.00 or more – then you contribute 15 percent of your income back to the program for three years. So that's the way that we approach the cost of college. And, in our opinion, it only is going to be successful when you have aligned outcomes for both the student and the institution because, otherwise, the institution is focused more on preservation than serving the ultimate student interests.
JLD: There's so much BS that gets thrown around that we just accept in this world and it's just – I'm so thankful that we live in a time frame where at least we have a voice that we can get out via podcast, and videos, and Facebook, and all this stuff because it's just so sad. For me, Adam, I was double bamboozled. No. 1, everybody told me to go to the most expensive college. I was being bamboozled into believing that but, luckily, I did get an Army ROTC scholarship so I actually graduated with no debt but I still was bamboozled into that line of thinking. Then, No. 2, I was bamboozled a second time because people would say, "Oh, and by the way, you're an officer in the Army. You spend, four years as an officer, you do your thing, you're going to get out and everybody's going to want you. It's just going to be –" And this was everybody, Adam – I'm talking people that loved me, people that hated me, everybody in between – "You're on top of the world when you're –" I got out as a captain after four years.
Adam: Yeah. Wow.
JLD: I was a captain, combat experience, four years, 13 months in Iraq – I did everything – and I got out and, guess what? I couldn't get a job. And it wasn't a bad market, it was an awesome market – this was before the collapse in 2007, this was 2006, the market was on fire – I couldn't get a job. I finally got a job where, true story, I was sitting for $31,000.00 – I was getting some commission, of course but that was with the low salary, not a lot of commission so very low paying job – in Boston. The guy next to me, at my cubicle, was a 22-year-old Providence College grad – same job, got out of college, just got accepted, boom. So I was like, "My four years in the Army didn't get me on top of the world. It got me next to where I would have been four years ago had I just never gone."
JLD: And so the BS that gets thrown around is so sad. We just need to cut through all of this and, Fire Nation; we're going to be telling you how to do just that as soon as we thank our sponsors.
[Audio cuts out and back in]
So, Adam, we're back and I want to talk about Mission U for the rest of the time we have together. So talk about Mission U a little more in-depth. I love how you shared exactly what it looks like on the backend with the $50K, then it's 15 percent. But what is Mission U and how does somebody get into Mission U?
Adam: Right now, anybody and go to missionu.com – it's just the letter "U" at the end so M-I-S-S-I-O-N-U.com – and you can apply. Not only that, but actually, if you know of a student that you think would be a good person for this program, if you refer a student and they get accepted, we'll give them a $500.00 credit towards that credit on the end and we'll also pay you $500.00 for referring us incredible talent. So anybody can go to Mission U and refer or apply themselves.
JLD: So just make sure you say EOFire sent you guys.
Adam: Yes, definitely. On top of that, one of the things that we really think is, again, needing some change in higher education is the admissions process itself. Right?
Adam: The way that most colleges operate is they look at SATs, they look at GPA, they look at your, maybe, family connections, your clubs that you participated in. But, if you look at SATs, for example, it's such a direct line of correlation to wealth – it's perfectly in line – so what we end up doing is we exclude a large part of our population in even participating in these application processes. So, anyway, to make a long story short, our application process looks nothing like that. There are four simple steps. We don't look at GPA, we don't look at SAT – you don't even have to have graduated from high school because what we're trying to search for is talent, it's the potential of an individual and their willingness to work hard for their goals.
And so you fill out a really basic form, you take an admissions challenge online, then you move onto a group challenge where you're in a live virtual chat room with students, and then there's a final round interview after that. But we make it pretty seamless and, again, we don't want to exclude anybody that we think would be an amazing contributor to a great company. And we have a bunch of employer partners already lined up – companies like Lyft and Warby-Parker, and Harris, and Kaspar, Plated, Facebook, a whole bunch of other great ones as well – that help inform our curriculum as well as get preferred access to our top graduates.
JLD: So is there a campus? Is it all online? How does that work?
Adam: Great question. Our belief is that the future of a lot of high quality education exists at the intersection of online and offline. So about 80 to 90 percent of the learning experience happens online but these are not pre-recorded lectures that you watch on your own time – these are live virtual classrooms with incredible industry practitioners who are your instructors. And you're in a group of 25 students in your cohort that you basically travel throughout your year and you progress with these 25 members of your cohort.
That said, even though a lot of it happens online, we think that, to develop real peer networks – like the value of college is, oftentimes, who you meet – and those friendships, those bonds that you build for life – as well as some of the soft skills that you learn and the project-based experience that you have, a lot of that needs to happen in-person so we have a three-day orientation that happens in-person, we do a meet-up every single month, and then we have graduation at the very end. But, for us, graduation shouldn’t be at the end of the year – we actually do graduation six weeks before the program ends because, at college, you graduate and then you're expected to be sent off on your own to secure a job. The last six weeks of our program, we call "career launch" and we support our students from everything through interview preparation, interview feedback, all the way to salary negotiation.
JLD: It just sounds like you took everything that's the traditional education system does wrong and you do it right.
Adam: I appreciate that.
JLD: And there is a lot of things that you do right because there's a lot of things that traditional education does wrong. But let's talk about the future because it seems like, to me, you are the future and it's my incredible hope that you are the future because it would be such a positive direction for this world if that was the case. What's the future of higher education as you see it?
Adam: I think that, historically, higher education was, essentially, the capstone on a journey that you started as a 4 or 5-year-old and you ended as a 22 or 23-year old. And that was when you were a full-time student and then you progressed into your career and that was you as a full-time working professional. And I think the future of education, in general, is the acknowledgement that, given where we're headed as a people, as a culture, as an economy, as a society, you're always going to need to stay educated. And a friend of mine calls it "renewable education" – others refer to it as "lifelong learning."
But I think the future of higher education is acknowledging that we don't need four years upfront – in fact, you can get shorter bursts of really concentrated immersive education – and that you'll start your career and maybe you'll have on-the-job training – you'll go to a leadership seminar for two-weeks in the middle of your job, you'll spend two months at night taking courses for the most recent skill that you need to perfect your job. So I think the future of higher education is really centered around life-long learning and breaking down this previously held belief that is was just four captive years between the ages of 18 to 22 that should cost you a lot of money and put you in debt and, hopefully, we can change that line of thinking.
JLD: I think you said that so well – just the four captive years. So many people will say, "I got my Bachelor's," like they reached the finish line, like it's over now and whatever else that's ahead of them does not include education but, like you said, education never stops, Fire Nation –
Adam: That's right.
JLD: – if you want to continue to succeed in this world. So, Adam, let's end today on fire. Give us a parting piece of guidance, share the best way that we can connect with you and, of course, with Mission U, and then we'll say goodbye.
Adam: For the parting piece of guidance, I would say that each person should recognize that they have the resounding capacity to make whatever dent in the world that they believe possible but it really has to start with finding that internal resolve and then building a community around you of those who will support that aspiration. In terms of finding me, I'm pretty easy: my general email is just adam@the letter "I" promise.org – so email@example.com – anybody that's listening to this can reach out to me directly. I'd encourage you to go to missionu.com – just the letter "U" – and learn more about what we're doing, ideally, apply. On that application when you ask who referred you, if you just put EOFire, we'll give you that $500.00 scholarship or credit so get love right there and, hopefully; reference John for spreading the good word. And I think, hopefully, I'll be seeing you guys a little bit later down the line.
JLD: Fire Nation, you're the average of the five people you spend the most time with. You've been hanging out with AB and JLD today so keep up the heat. Head over to EOFire.com and, if you type "Adam" in the search bar, not just this show notes page but his previous two episodes – both which were epic – will pop right up. So go ahead, give those a listen because they were great. But all the links that we were talking about in this episode will be there galore. But, of course, call to action is, No. 1, if you want to say thank you to Adam, or say hi, or ask him a question, firstname.lastname@example.org and then, again, of course, go directly to missionu.com and check out what they have going on over there. If you apply and do whatever your thing is and you mention EOFire, you're going to get $500.00 off – ba boom. And, Adam, I just want to thank you, brother, for sharing your journey with Fire Nation today. For that, we salute you and we'll catch you on the flip side.
Adam: Thanks so much, John.
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