Interviewing the founder of the U Experience

What might it mean to unbundle higher education during a pandemic?

University Experience logoEarlier this month I read about The U Experience in Inside Higher EdThe U Experience is an experimental startup with the goal of providing an undergraduate residential semester… for students attending different colleges and universities, taking classes online. UE staff are establishing an epidemiological bubble around their students, so that the latter can socialize freely and without masks.  The whole thing will take place at a resort in Pottsboro, Texas.

I was fascinated by the idea, not least because I’ve been calling for such a thing for years before the pandemic. It seemed like an idea worth exploring for students who want the residential experience but preferred to take classes online, especially traditional-age undergraduates (18-24).  Yet I still wasn’t sure how this would work.

To learn more, I reached out to the UE team.  Their founding president, Adam Bragg, agreed to answer my questions by email.  Here they are, with my questions scarcely edited.

1. Are you recruiting students enrolled in American colleges and universities, or also those learners taking classes elsewhere?

Any student currently enrolled in a college, university, or higher educational program anywhere in the world may apply for a spot in The U Experience. We currently have thousands of students from hundreds of colleges who have applied.

2. Limiting the student population to a Dunbar number is a fascinating idea from a socialization perspective. It does seem low, however, given that most campuses host several hundred (at the low end) to tens of thousands. Are you planning that students will enjoy a combination social life, in person (at Tanglewood) and online (with classmates and other peers)?

We decided on limiting this first U Experience to 150 students because we feel that it’s the right number as far as keeping everyone safe and engaged in the community. We want to offer this to as many students as we can, but we still want it to be a personal experience for those who participate. We may decide to increase that number for future semesters, but right now we’re limiting our class to 150 students.

While some college campuses typically have thousands of students in their community, most interactions happen within small social circles.

I’m sure students will be maintaining relationships with their friends and college classmates while they are at The U Experience and our feeling is that those interactions can only enhance their experience.

3. Is the reality tv show going to happen? If so, how many students will be able to participate?

Right now, it would be premature to talk about any details regarding a potential TV show.

4. What academic criteria will you use in selecting your first 150 students?

Our goal is to create a community that will provide students with social, academic and personal growth opportunities. Just like traditional colleges and universities, in order to have an environment that brings value to the community, we are hand selecting participants. There are several factors that we are considering during the student selection process.

Students applying to join The U Experience begin by making students profiles in our virtual community where they get the chance to indicate who they feel would most like to see on campus. To ensure a diverse and inclusive community, our staff will be evaluating applicants on their individual strengths and how they fit into the class. Applicants have the opportunity to introduce themselves with a bio to give insight into their goals and aspirations. Our staff will take all these factors into consideration to select those students who we believe will best contribute to a stimulating, creative, productive and diverse community.

5. What criteria will you use to determine if this first semester is a success?

Operationally, we will do a complete review of each aspect of the semester from guest speakers and program elements to safety protocols and food service. We will review every element of the semester with our staff to identify what worked and what presented challenges. We will also do a post-semester survey with each of the 150 students to get their insight and opinions on the experience.

Our top priority is to keep our students safe, healthy, and happy, and beyond that the ultimate test of our first semester success will be the amount of student interest in our Fall 2021 program. If we’re successful in broadcasting our message and students are raving about this spring being the best semester of their lives, we’ll consider our mission a success.

6. If it is a success, what would your next steps be – offering additional U Experiences at other locations, for example? Do you think the U Experience could work after the pandemic is controlled? That is, would you consider hosting such a UE for students talking classes online in general, beyond COVID’s constraints?

Our mission is to unbundle the college experience so students can choose to pursue less expensive educational options like online learning without having to compromise on the social aspect or miss out on the college experience. Online learning has been growing in popularity over the past decade, with the rise of MOOCs (massive open online courses), and colleges have invested billions of dollars in building their online teaching infrastructure. We expect online learning to continue growing in popularity over the coming years, long after COVID. As we grow with time and offer a greater number of campuses each semester, we’ll also be able to provide different types of community experiences that students can pick and choose from.

Some thoughts and responses:

I’m fascinated by their global ambition.  The U Experience sounds like a very American experience, with its emphasis on a rich, residential, undergrad time. We know this appeals to some folks from other nations, based on the success (pre-Trump, pre-COVID) American colleges and universities have enjoyed in recruiting global students. Perhaps UE can recruit the largest number from European and African nations, where the time zone differences for live sessions are most workable.

The part about students socializing online during the selection process is interesting.  It’s different from the undergraduate application process.  Instead, it sounds like an audition of sorts or a Greek house rush in its competitive and performance nature.  Or, since UE founders are from Princeton, that campus’ eating clubs. Unlike those processes, this one will be entirely virtual.

The 150-student scale is interesting beyond the Dunbar number aspect, which I think is smart. From a sustainability level, UE needs to make this work for a very very small group of students.  It’s smaller than starting up a college, for example.  Given the roughly 17 million undergrads in the US, this is a micro-experiment.  If we look globally, there are up to 200 million students to approach. Put another way, UE has an enormous pool to select from.

I think the overall picture is very attractive.  First, it offers a sense of normalcy beyond the pandemic. As Colleen Flaherty writes, “there are people willing to pay for a sense of normalcy.” The chance to have a residential experience without masks in a resort setting is obviously appealing.  Second, the competitive social aspect appeals to some people (again, cf the Greek system).  UE has a good shot at making this work.

Obviously, the biggest risk is a COVID-19 breakout.  Safety from it is the UE’s foundational premise. Other safety risks are also present, as they are in every residential undergraduate setting: injury, assault, stress, etc. The UE will have to manage this semester with assiduous care.

That need will be heightened to the extend that the spring 2021 garners media attention. I would expect some of the students to be active in social media, documenting their experience.  Buzzfeed reports that at least one Instagram influencer has been admitted. More traditional media may also follow, which is why I asked Bragg about reality tv show rumors.  Such attention will magnify any issues that arise, but can also build publicity for following semesters.

Returning to my earlier point, a successful spring term for the U Experience could inspire more such projects.  Bragg was clear in our conversation about wanting to expand. I can imagine other enterprises launching to try capturing this emerging market. Startups could vie with established academic institutions.  Perhaps a large state system like SUNY would consider setting one up in-house.

What do you think of The U Experience?

My thanks to Adam Bragg for taking the time to generously answer my questions.

Meta note: blogging will be light for the next week or so. I’ve been ordered to take some time off.

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6 Responses to Interviewing the founder of the U Experience

  1. Ken Soto says:

    So many issues to think about here, but the positioning of this seems weird. As the article suggests, the social freedom benefit promised can be accomplished now at just about any college or university but isn’t because it’s hard to do with students and there’s nothing in U Experience’s approach that seems like it will create more safety. I guess the idea that they focus on the experience outside of academics leaves more capability to ensure health and security is interesting and testable. And ayear from now very few students will need this.

    What is I think more interesting is the unbundling aspect. Yes, any small private libarts college can provide this now (not very well), but as a student you get the programs, professors, curriculum, and location in one package, take it or leave it. What U Experience and similar can offer is the freedom to build an education ala carte – enroll in the Florida location, build your major from coursework from hundreds of education partners around the globe. Advising is separate and customized for each student, not driven by what the university offers. Then relocate to the Milan facility to finish your degree (or whatever we call it in the future) – the program you’ve built follows you.

    What’s also interesting is thinking about what it means to the future of accreditation and work/ employment. When students take on the burden of assembling their own education, rather than trusting the university to provide a pathway towards a career (however flawed that is right now) will this lead to more or less success?

    The atomization this suggests is remarkable. Colleges participated in this trend when they turned over food and residential services to private contractors. It’s not hard to see academics and advising being broken off next.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Ken, thank you for these good thoughts. Your focus on atomization/unbundling is key.

      Also, “a year from now very few students will need this” – assuming vaccination hits its marks and COVID declines to seasonal flu levels, this is a good point. Will enough students want to do this to merit operations?

  2. Gretchen says:

    It’s the unbundling that if works will be another major headaches for schools trying to stay afloat. And while this focus is on the social experience, we spend a lot of money talking about on-cause interaction with professors. That is not part of this experiment that I can tell?

  3. Carrie Saarinen says:

    I think the most interesting aspect of the U Experience is that students will be attending different schools while the live, study and, perhaps, work together. After the experiment ends, if the founders investigate experiences, I would be curious to know what students learn about themselves, their school selection, their choice of major, etc when they are able to so easily compare their academic life to that of a peer attending a different school.
    I wonder what mix of schools by size and type will be represented. Will students attending large R1 universities be studying alongside students attending small liberal arts colleges? Will students attending similar school types be more likely to become friends?
    What might this say about the importance and relevance of campus identity (brand, school type, geographic location, campus culture, community) if students can live and study in an environment that is essentially an interschool or intercampus dormitory?

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