Side Hustle College by David J. Staley

A few days ago, I had coffee with a recent graduate of Ohio State.  An engineering major, he now works for a big Silicon Valley tech firm.  He said that what got him his job was not his major or his grade point as much as the side projects he engaged in while at Ohio State.  He was president of the Machine Learning Club, for example.  My biggest takeaway from our conversation is that some companies, at least the tech giants, are looking for more than just a degree or a credential: they seek graduates with demonstratable skills.  If those skills can be acquired in a formal class, great.  If those skills come from experiences outside of the formal curriculum, that’s ok too. 

Outside of higher education, we sometimes call these projects unrelated to one’s occupation “side hustles.”  What if we designed a college experience to include the expectation that students pursue a number of side hustles outside of the formal curriculum?  That is, in addition to pursuing a major course of study, a student might also engage in a number of “side projects,” although in this arrangement these projects would be at the center of the educational enterprise, not on its periphery. 

Students already engage in internships, of course.  But what if there were an expectation that a student engage in two internships each semester of college?  What if a student were expected to lead four or five service learning experiences during their stay at a college?  In this scenario, the student would receive a college degree for having successfully engaged in twelve to fifteen side hustles.   

These projects would encompass a wide variety of different experiences, not just the same skills repeated across similar internships.  That is, a computer science major would not engage in six internships writing code. That student would also be expected to engage in a project involving wetlands conservation, say, and a project creating a public art installation, and a project serving as an officer in a student organization.  Successfully concluding each side project would earn students a set of skills to burnish on their resumes. 

Years ago, I was serving as an external consultant at a selective liberal arts college, where I observed a program that illustrates the vision above.  The college had a technology service intended for the residents in the surrounding community, a small midwestern town that would not otherwise have access to such technical know-how.  Students served as the staff of this technology service, and would, for example, develop webpages and serve as web administrators for local businesses. To be clear, the students in this program were not majoring in computer science or in information technology.  Indeed, many were majors in philosophy and English and psychology.  By participating in this “side hustle,” the students were learning job-ready skills, even as their degrees recorded them as majoring in seemingly non-vocational subjects.   

Creating “Side Hustle College” would mean that the college would offer fewer classes, but would expand the number of extracurricular projects: months-long engagements that would involve students. Students might have a major concentration, but their side hustles would equal the time spent in the formal classroom.  In such a setting, faculty would “teach” a number of these projects over the course of an academic year, some of these projects on-going, others of short duration.  These projects would very likely align to faculty research interests, of course.  As a history professor, perhaps I might teach fewer formal history classes, but would direct more students in history projects, many of the students I work with majoring in business or engineering, not actually history majors nor particularly intent on signing up for history classes.

Side Hustle College elevates the pedagogical importance and centrality of the extracurriculum.

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