Professor Leaves Academia to Start a New & Game-Changing Kind of College

If you could create your own University, what would it look like? Many have pondered this question but it is rare to find someone who turns those musings into a real, vibrant, higher education learning community. Michelle Jones and her team of founders are such people. A college professor for 15 years, Michelle relinquished her most recent position as Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and Leadership at Concordia University – Portland to found Wayfinding Academy, a 2-year school that doesn’t start with questions about majors, minors, credits and degrees. It is a college experience that begins with a far more fundamental set of questions:

  • Who are you?
  • What do you care about?
  • What kind of impact do you want to make on the world?
  • How do you get there from here?

This is not a school focused on jumping through academic hoops in pursuit of a key-shaped credential that allegedly opens doors to the good life. The vision of Wayfinding Academy is one rooted in the important understanding that keys to the good life don’t come from institutional verification of your competence as much as discovering your passions and turning those passions into a life of purpose and impact.

I first learned about Wayfinding Academy while browsing some of the recent crowd-funding campaigns on Indiegogo (To tell the truth, I was looking into crowd-funding my own higher education innovation at the time.). It was there that I discovered a $200,000 campaign for the launch of, “a different kind of college focused on creating a life only you can imagine.” There I read about the vision of a forthcoming college with features like the study of passion-based leadership; a 2-3 person team of advisors/mentors to work on a personalized plan for each student; and the creation of a personalized portfolio that documents student’s experiences, learning and accomplishments during their time in college.

$200,000 isn’t enough to start a college. Yet, Wayfinding Academy has a team of experts shaping its formation, and this team has what seems to be a financially sound plan that will also keep the cost of tuition to around $10,000 a year, a price tag comparable to the community colleges in Oregon. The $200,000 is really just seed money for the initial facilities. As Michelle recently explained, the crowd-sourcing is about fund-raising, but it is even more about “friend-raising”, building a diverse community of like-minded people.

Every worthwhile endeavor starts with a compelling why, usually one inspired by an important and unmet need in the world. The compelling why for Wayfinding Academy grew partly out of Michelle’s work in higher education. “I feel like so many college students have no idea why they are there and no sense of the next,” she explained. Teaching in a University setting, Michelle met countless students who went to college simply because that is what good students are supposed to do after high school. Many have not thought deeply about who they are, the impact that they want to have in the world and the best way to have that impact. Wayfinding Academy is a place for such people. In essence, a student’s “major” at Wayfinding Academy is to discover a compelling mission that aligns with deep-seated passions in one’s life. Student come to figure out their why, develop the competence and confidence to live it out, and they build a portfolio that documents their journey along the way.

What is it like to be a teacher at Wayfinding Academy? There will be no long lectures at this school, no traditional grading systems, and no cramming for the next multiple choice exam. Professors will lead discussions and serve as mentors for the students. When asked what she would look for in a professor, Michelle explained that they need to be experts in their area, but they also need to be deeply connected in the community. Faculty should have a, “vast network with whom they can connect the students.”  For example, if a student is interested in wine-making, the Wayfinding Academy will have professors who know people in the community who can help a student explore that passion. Along the way, each student will have the opportunity to build the beginnings of a lifelong personal learning network, a topic that I’ve written about quite a bit in the past, and something that I consider to be a critical literacy for thriving in a connected world.

This concept of connection with the community is an exciting and interesting part of the Wayfinding Academy. While there will be some core courses of study for each student, Michelle envisions learning experiences where you walk into the room and find it hard to tell who is professor, full-time student, and who is a community member participating for personal growth and interest. It is a vision for an open learning community, one that blurs the distinctions between what happens in the school and what happens in the community. Students will spend signficant time in the community, and community members will hopefully be engaged and present in the school. As I listened to Michelle explain this vision, I pictured a community where the role of teacher and student is played by all.

The creation of a college from scratch is a big, hairy, audacious goal in itself, but Michelle Jones explained that there is an even grander goal behind this effort. Ultimately, it is her desire to help change the conversation in higher education. In a contemporary conversation that is too often consumed with retention rates, gradation rates, economic development, accountability and standardized testing; the Wayfinding Academy reminds us that there is a different way. What would happen if we talked less about getting more college graduates and instead helped more people discover their passions and have a positive impact in their communities and beyond? Some people might direct our attention to studies indicating that college graduates are wealthier, happier and healthier. They make the mistake of assuming that going to college somehow automatically causes these things, but could it instead be that we’ve created a social system that blocks off many other valid and important pathways to fulfilling lives that also happen to result in health, a living wage, and a rich and rewarding life? As it stands, there is an average $45,000 of college debt for those who attend, and many who go to college never graduate. Models like the Wayfinding Academy help us imagine new possibilities that promise to address both of these problems. Even more imporant, this is a model that offers a way to keep us from wasting something even more precious, the uniqueness and potential of each person.

I’ve written about alternative education and educational innovation for over a decade, pointing to trends and innovations that are likely to gain traction. Over the past three years, I’ve written about the unbundling and re-imagining of learning organizations. Some of the promising experiments that I’ve highlighted have flourished and others have struggled, even closed. From what I know about the Wayfinding Academy, it is one of the most carefully conceived plans to date. The higher education landscape with innovation-destroying regulations is a difficult space, but I expect Wayfinding Academy to not only survive but spread. In fact, it represents a larger movement in niche and boutique higher education communities that may well change the nature of higher education for the current and next generation.