I Graduated From Harvard, And It Taught Me That Higher Education Needs to Change

Why did you decide to launch an education startup? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Adam Enbar, Co-Founder & CEO, Flatiron School, on Quora:

My parents were immigrants; neither of them went to college, but they believed wholeheartedly in the power of education and felt that, for me, education should be the biggest priority. I was lucky to grow up with the idea instilled in me that I should get an education no matter the cost, no matter what I had to do to make it happen. Even when I was young, my family went from being well off to having eight people living in a motel and back multiple times (such is life growing up in a family of serial entrepreneurs). But the first thing my parents always considered was our education.

Eventually, I became the first person in my family to go to college, an Ivy League one at that. Obviously, my parents were thrilled. But I came away with the feeling that I had spent four years and a tremendous of money to have a great experience, but not come away with many practical skills. Maybe things would be different in business school. I was lucky to get one of the best business educations out there, but again, toward the end of the program, I started feeling that while I was learning a lot about a lot of things and getting a ton of hard-to-articulate "value" from the experience, I wasn't gaining a set of concrete skills, a way to clearly contribute or add value to a company. So when I graduated, I took an entry-level sales job and pounded the phones for a while, figuring the best way I could contribute to a company would be to build stuff or sell stuff.

I was grateful for the education I got, but I knew something was missing. Who leaves Harvard Business School to take a sales job to get a real skill? How does a business school not teach the most important part of business: how to sell something?

Throughout all of this, I had stayed close to education. During college, I mentored kids in single-mother homes and taught first grade a charter school in Brooklyn; during business school, I volunteered at a prison teaching entrepreneurship.

So when I started working in Venture Capital and my partners told me, "Choose a giant problem you want to solve and find the smartest people in the world who are working on it," I knew what I wanted to take on: the fundamental problem of Return on Investment in higher education--the disparity between what people make in their jobs and what they owe for their education.

I started mapping out the educational landscape, meeting with everyone I could in the world of education--deans of universities, founders of edtech startups, thought leaders in the space. What struck me was that most of the people I met were more focused on bringing radical efficiencies to a failed model (i.e. "Let's make textbooks radically cheaper" or "let's build a better gradebook"), rather than trying to affect the ROI of higher education in a meaningful way. No one was trying to rethink the entire model.

So in my quest to meet the smartest people I could find in the world of education, I found Avi Flombaum, whose story was the opposite of mine: he taught himself to code as a kid, dropped out of college, had an amazing career at a hedge fund before starting his own company--and then he began teaching people how to code. And the radical thing was: he was getting them jobs. It blew my mind. I even enrolled in his class to get a closer look.

And as I took that class, I kept thinking to myself, "This is the best teacher I've ever met" (and that's coming from a Cornell/HBS grad). I talked to his other students and got a firsthand look at the lives and careers Avi was changing. I realized education can be way more than that hard-to-quantify growth experience: it can change lives in measureable, concrete ways.

Avi and I put our heads together about how to bring this sort of life-changing education to more people. We knew if we focused on quality, accessibility, and on always getting great outcomes for students, we had the opportunity to do something different, special, and impactful to education. It's in those conversations that we decided to start Flatiron School.

And that's what we've been doing for the past four years or so. Flatiron School is one of the first coding bootcamps, and it's only one that has been around this long that has raised money but hasn't tried to significantly increase enrollments or open up a lot of other locations--we're not trying to build a chain of vocational schools and charge a lot of people a lot of money (in fact, we're deliberately increasing access to our programs for low-income students who can't afford it). We're taking the time and focus to rethink higher education and provide an alternative--one that I hope aligns with my parents' long-held beliefs about the power of education.

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