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Accrediting as a service and the future of alternative degrees

Woolf’s multimillion-dollar fundraise is a reminder of the importance of effectiveness

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Joshua Broggi believes that three new colleges need to be created every single day, for the next decade, in order to adequately meet demand from students. So, he is building Woolf, what he claims is the first software platform that can launch and manage an accredited digital college.

Woolf wants to take off “the sophisticated burden” of accreditation, or recognition that an institution fits certain criteria and standards, from younger institutions or programs — ranging from tech bootcamps to an entirely virtual business school. Similar to how the University of California (UC) system brings together a group of prestigious universities under one brand, Woolf wants to be the “UC” for lesser-known institutions that want to level up their curricula and offer credits at the same time. So far, Woolf is working with seven pilot customers across seven countries.

Broggi’s vision of accreditation as a service, and this early traction, helped the startup land a $7.5 million seed round led by Todd Jackson at First Round Capital, with participation from investors such as Connect Ventures’ Sitar Teli, IOVC’s Shuonan Chen, All Access Fund’s Shaan Puri and Tribe Capital’s Jonathan Hsu.

The debate around accreditation often focuses on two extremes: the people who don’t believe in the power of a four-year degree and the people who think accreditation is the only way to succeed. I think that is an oversimplification; there is more of an overlap that you’d imagine when it comes to how entrepreneurs are viewing the future of education.

Case in point: Woolf University isn’t competing with the cadre of startups offering non-accredited alternatives to education. Instead, Woolf wants to make them future customers.

When it comes to fundraising or types of capital, optionality has been the term du jour in the current tech environment. And the same goes when we’re talking about the types of education pathways that a student should have access to. Broggi’s key argument here is that many tech bootcamps, or newer colleges, will eventually need to provide an accredited option in order to continue attracting customers.

Ethos-wise, it seems like both camps agree that it’s important to offer students a variety of resources because traditional, one-size-fits-all learning isn’t effective. Strive School, led by Tobia De Angelis, was launched in response to the outdated STEM course material taught in European industries. Even though a majority of universities in Europe are low cost or free to attend, he argued that accessibility doesn’t equate to effectiveness. He raised millions of dollars to prove why more options are needed.

I imagine that every tech bootcamp can spend their earliest years without accreditation, but then eventually — either due to liability risk or demand from students — decision-makers will need to at least offer a path for students who want outcomes with a certain type of signal. Plus, giving students more choice meshes well with the arguments that I hear from bootcamp founders who have somewhat spearheaded the charge on alternative financing options for education.

Both alternative schools and accredited universities boast about the importance of affordability. Income-share agreements, or ISAs, are instruments that allow students to forgo paying for an education upfront in exchange for a portion of their future salary — a still-controversial route.

Woolf wants to strike a similar tone when it comes to removing the burden of cost from students.

Broggi estimates that half of employees at “modern universities” work in administration, a role that his company eventually would seek to automate and even replace.

“At the end, the student pays for that administrative burden,” he said. “Accreditation exists to provide protections to students and to give them clarity about the quality of the programs, but they’re also the ones that have to pay for all of that bureaucracy.”

While the founder wouldn’t disclose Woolf’s specific pricing model, he did say that the company is a more realistic option for small, innovative organizations than the status quo of turning to regional accrediting bodies.

Thus, while accreditation may be seen by some as a page out of privilege, Woolf is focusing on bringing down the cost of the process while continuing the quality assurance.

Finally, both camps of startups know that the bar needs to be raised in terms of what constitutes disruptive education, which has a history of burning folks. Everyone has a different idea on how to execute.

The biggest purpose of accreditation is to make sure that students know what they’re signing up for. Broggi said he doesn’t want to comment directly on any bootcamp, but added that “all colleges at Woolf have to subscribe to the same standards, quality assurance and [provide a] strong picture of compliance that meets accreditation standards.”

“And sometimes, there’s a leveling up that needs to happen in an organization,” he said. Not all startups that go this route are destined for success, of course: Years ago, Make School gained accreditation for a two-year applied CS bachelor’s degree, and now it doesn’t operate the program.

That in mind, one question mark for Woolf is its promise to launch accredited digital colleges “in less than a day.” Speed as a sales pitch feels counterintuitive to its mission to provide sophisticated services at a reasonable price, so there’s clearly some refinement needed.

Stoa School, which just raised a $1.5 million seed round for its part-time MBA replacement, doesn’t ever plan to go the accreditation route because they believe it will limit how fast they can change and iterate their degree.

“We are a six-month degree, and Indian regulators are never going to accept that kind of degree or diploma,” said Stoa co-founder Raj Kunkolienkar. “There are very specific rules around what is accredited here in India.” In this sense, the startup claims that it’s avoiding going “the degree way” to retain control of the brand, or, in other words, focus on skills that they feel are more imperative to folks who want to onramp into tech.

Bootcamps are clearly feeling how the pressure to stay affordable and provide optionality can be challenging. Flockjay wanted to help a similar cohort of people but recently laid off half of its staff and pivoted to a B2B sales model. In a different vein, Lambda School was recently scrutinized for its misleading job-placement rates, a metric that Arizona State’s Phil Regier seems to think isn’t even a good metric to lean on.

“If you get a first job, but you aren’t on a pathway to graduation, that’s not so good,” Regier, who leads the Edplus program at the school, said. “There’s a lot of evidence that … lifetime earnings for people who have some type of college degree [are higher]. You aren’t in a fully successful place going forward.”

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a story questioning if edtech would empower — or erase — the need for higher education. Then, the conversation revolved far more around how technology could be a tool that scales remote instruction. With a company like Woolf raising millions, and with bootcamps starting to flirt with the idea of optionality, I think the conversation is now shifting to understanding how technology can raise the bar on what we consider to be effective education.

I think the true innovation will rely on some sort of collaboration among edtech companies that want to redefine the status quo, rather than reinforce it for the same people it’s always benefited.

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