As schools around the country celebrate the end of an academic year fraught with compromise and frustration, now is the time for parents, students, and the education technology industry to ask the evergreen graduation question: What have we learned? As an entrepreneur who began my education in India and completed my medical residency in the U.S., I have learned that many American families view education as a service. Parents pay tuition or taxes, and in return they expect schools to shepherd students from kindergarten to the ultimate reward of college and a career. I have also seen the difference between students who coast their way through college because that’s what is expected of them and those who formulate and execute a plan to use higher education as an opportunity to launch themselves into a career that has both higher costs and bigger rewards.
When I was preparing for the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE), I borrowed thousands of dollars to pay for prep materials that didn’t prove very helpful. Many of my colleagues felt the same way, so I wrote 200 pages of case-based scenarios that would help students prepare for the USMLE. I sent the guide to several publishers, and when they told me to come back when I had finished my medical training, I decided to put the material online myself. I launched UWorld out of my dorm room, and by the end of my residency, the company had made somewhere in the area of $250,000. Today, after bootstrapping its growth since day one, I can say that UWorld has helped millions of users around the globe prepare for high-stakes exams including the SAT and ACT.
Of course over the past year, many fewer students have followed the path that begins with those exams. With some 400,000 students choosing not to enroll in college in 2020, one subset of parents and students has spent the past year bemoaning what they weren’t getting from schools and universities. Meanwhile, others achieved their academic goals despite the limitations of distance and hybrid learning by treating their family like a startup: a small group of people with a shared goal and the need to come up with creative solutions to long-standing problems.
The rise of learning pods built around an instructor hired by a small group of families is a great example of moving beyond the service model to a more entrepreneurial approach. Pods are finding funding through foundations, donations, and fundraising sites like GoFundMe.
Like startups, pods have the flexibility that comes with being small. A pod leader with four students has the time and freedom to explore more novel approaches to learning than a teacher trying to get 30 students to hold still during a Zoom lesson.
Not all of these approaches will be successful, but as anyone who has ever founded a company knows, you often learn more from your failures than your successes. For students in learning pods, the lack of a large peer group can be an educational advantage. Surrounded by a few people they trust, they are freer to learn the essential entrepreneurial lesson: “Fail fast, learn faster.”
Even when students all over the country are back in classrooms full time alongside their teachers and friends, families can and should provide their children the fundamentals they need to direct their own education in the same way startup CEOs direct their startups. Students, like entrepreneurs, require only a few key elements to succeed: a quiet space to work, a device, and a reliable internet connection. Today’s students also need online learning materials, and I have found that the most effective of these are the ones that reward self-starters by promoting self-paced, active learning.
Some families might not be able to afford all of these fundamentals without assistance, but as newly minted entrepreneurs, I hope that they will (whether it means exploring online tools, forming partnerships with education-focused nonprofits, or creating peer-tutoring networks). Succeeding with this self-organized and self-motivated approach to learning requires students to develop another characteristic of the best startup leaders: a growth mindset. This is the unshakeable belief that with hard work and persistence, you’ll get better at what you’re doing, whether that’s algebra or hiring staff.
The brutal truth is that our high school and college students are facing unprecedented academic challenges. Their risk of losing out on the benefits of higher education is real, but if families adopt an entrepreneurial model, students will have the tools they need to put themselves on the path to professional success. And if the tools they need don’t exist yet, today’s entrepreneurial students will create them themselves.
Dr. Chandra Pemmasani is the founder and CEO of UWorld, a provider of online learning tools that help prepare students for high-stakes exams.