A Degree Without Debt: Meet a Tech Winner Stepping up for Free Education

These days, Michael J. Saylor serves as chairman and CEO of MicroStrategy, a leading worldwide provider of enterprise software platforms. The MIT graduate also worked as a venture manager at E.I. du Pont de Nemours and as a consultant of Federal Group. This tech leader has seen his ups and downs. A 2000 article pegged his net worth at $7 billion, when he was just 35 years old, but he's not now on the Forbes billionaires list. 

Regardless, Saylor is plenty wealthy, and he's also another philanthropically inclined entrepreneur who remembers where he came from. 

Before Saylor went on to stratospheric business success, he was a kid in a working class town in Ohio. He was able to attend MIT on an ROTC scholarship, where he received two degrees at no cost—an S.B. in aeronautics and astronautics and an S.B. in science, technology and society. At the chemical company duPont, Saylor built a computer model for its global titanium business, which led the chemical giant to seed Saylor's own company, MicroStrategy.

Saylor credits the fact that he was unburdened by debt during his post-graduate years for his success, and like many stories of philanthropy, gratitude is a key element. Saylor's avenue for paying it forward is Saylor.org, a free education initiative of his foundation, launched in 2008.

Saylor.org has grown to offer some 100 full-length, free courses at the college and professional levels. The outfit offers dozens of courses across categories like art history, computer science, history and physics, and partners with a number of institutions and organizations that offer college credit and/or recognition to students who successfully complete select courses.

In an interview, Saylor.org's Jeffrey S. Davidson, Director of Strategic Partnerships, and Community Relations Director Sean Connor, emphasized to me that Michael Saylor's view is simple: People should be able to pursue an education without taking on debt so that they can go wherever their talent takes them. To that end, Saylor's aim is to build an organization that is an important piece in a large puzzle.

For instance, why oughtn't companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft package substantial educational freeware with their products?

Davidson and Connor seemed optimistic about the impact that free online educational spaces such as Saylor.org or the better-known Khan Academy, can have. They mentioned the plight of students at University of Memphis who were forced to drop out after exhausting their available financial aid. In some cases, students were literally a few classes away from graduating, but instead had to shift their attention to working a job and making ends meet.

Related: The Funders Pouring Money Into the Khan Academy

Saylor.org and University of Memphis collaborated so students could take Saylor courses to complete their degrees and graduate through the FinishLine program. The numbers speak for themselves: As of June 1, 2016, some 219 previously enrolled Memphis students returned to their studies and ultimately graduated. The students successfully completed a total of 279 Saylor courses, earning 837 credit hours at a total cost savings of over $272,000.

In this way, Saylor.org can work as a unique educational intermediary. Davidson and Connor also told me that enrolled college students use Saylor.org to catch up on traditional college work. They added that, down the line, a Saylor.org degree plus, say, training at a coding academy, might be a job ticket. Granted, these are non-traditional educational credentials now, but with so much financial stress in higher education, who knows what the future may bring?

As far as what's down the pike, Davidson and Connor mention that Saylor.org is beefing up its computer science courses, updating five of the current 20 courses and submitting them to the American Council on Education (ACE) for a college credit recommendation. (ACE is the same agency that reviews and recommends AP and CLEP exams.) They also mention a partnership with Brockton Public Schools in Massachusetts, a reminder that Saylor.org isn't just looking to improve higher education, but high schools and other learning spaces, too.

Michael Saylor's Constitution Foundation gives modestly to other educational causes, the arts and human services, primarily in the Mid-Atlantic. But it mainly exists to support Saylor.org: over 90 percent of its few million in annual spending goes towards Saylor.org. Apart from Saylor's own funds, it's worth noting that Saylor.org is looking for other operational and financial partners.

For a complete overview of Michael Saylor's giving, read our profile linked below.

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