Is This The Perfect College For the 21st Century?

The Indiegogo-funded Wayfinding Academy will focus on honing real-world skills rather than fulfilling prerequisites.

By Keegan Clements-Housser December 21, 2015 Published in the January 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Amy Martin

Everyone knows higher ed’s troubles. Tuition, textbook costs, and student debt are soaring. And—insult to injury!—only 27 percent of college grads find a job in their chosen field.

Maybe we’re doing it wrong.

That’s the conclusion of the Wayfinding Academy, a local team of 25 educational professionals who raised $206,451 via the crowdfunding site Indiegogo to launch a new kind of community college. Wayfinding’s vision: ditch traditional academic structure for a mix of internships, apprenticeships, and small classes. It’s a revolutionary approach but, according to founder Michelle Jones, a former Concordia prof, an essential one.

“We’ve seen for many, many years students get to college and have no idea why they’re there,” says Jones. “We thought, ‘There’s got to be a better way to do this.’”

Instead of pursuing specific majors, Wayfinding students will take core classes in communication, leadership, and problem-solving. The rest of their time will be divided among independent creative projects, community volunteering, and focused internships, with the goal of producing a final portfolio of work at graduation. For example, a Wayfinder interested in beer-making might apprentice under a local brewmaster. A student interested in film can complete requirements by attending workshops and film screenings, networking, and making movies.

The nonprofit college, which has just begun the long process of accreditation, will welcome its first cohort of 24 students later this year on a small campus (location yet unknown), with a goal of increasing to a total of 120 students by its fifth year. At the end of two years, students will graduate with an associate’s degree and actual working experience, at a cost of at most $21,000. This is more expensive than a similar degree at Portland Community College, but Jones says that with scholarships and grants the actual cost should be much lower than that. Whether Wayfinding Academy turns out to be a brilliant breakthrough or a misadventure in our quest for new education models, the learning will almost certainly happen on both sides of the lectern.

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