Could This Radical College Change the World Economy?

Gregory (right), who is from Haiti, and Samuel, who is from the U.S., stand in the intense Costa Rican, sun sharing their agricultural expertise. In the middle of the tropical rainforest, they describe the organic farm they work on, detailing everything from the benefits of its beautiful garden's mandala design to why worm composting makes good sense.

Gregory and Samuel aren't typical farmers. They're college students at EARTH University in Guacimo, Costa Rica, getting a hands-on education in sustainable agriculture.

Instead of churning out grades and papers, these students churn out real-life produce, and they hope to use what they learn to reap a better, more sustainable future across the globe. You may already have tasted the fruits of Gregory's and Samuel's labor if you shop at Whole Foods Market (WFM), which sells EARTH-branded bananas, pineapples, coffee, and fresh flowers from the farms of the campus -- and funnels a portion of the profit back to the school.

The Crisis of Traditional College

Back in America, most campuses and curricula bear little resemblance to those at EARTH University. In fact, some critics have decried American universities as little more than glorified country clubs, allowing young people to spend years in limbo.

Money pundit and former hedge fund manager James Altucher has written several times on why American parents shouldn't send their progeny to college. He and his fellow travelers contend it's simply a poor, overpriced investment. In 2010, American colleges were spending less on instruction and more on non-academic features like recreational facilities.

Opinions about the ROI of college aside, it's clear that education is in crisis. Graduates and their families are burdened by burgeoning student loan debt -- a problem that has even been dubbed the next bubble.

Once upon a time, a college degree seemed guaranteed to lead to an improved economic future. These days, the only guarantee is that you'll graduate with a boatload of debt and pretty depressing job prospects. Yet for young people in many places in the world, an education means far more than a piece of paper or a place to bide time. It's a path to a better life, and since many can't afford it, they would never take such an opportunity for granted.

Given this backdrop, maybe more American educators and students should note the curriculum at EARTH University.

A Different Path to Prosperity

EARTH University students don't land there by chance. They arrive with a path in mind: to learn the skills to build better lives and work in responsible ways that respect the planet, and then to take those skills back to their home countries.

The university's curriculum goes far beyond simply teaching sustainable agricultural techniques. It offers a values-based education with a major entrepreneurial component. (Note its mission statement: "To prepare leaders with ethical values to contribute to the sustainable development of the humid tropics and construct a prosperous and just society.")

For example, the institution gives second-year students up to $3,000 in seed money to launch companies that specialize in entrepreneurial, agricultural ventures. They must design a business plan and feasibility study, and then they must execute it. Some projects succeed; others fail. If one succeeds, the company's team members keep 78% of the profit, with 22% feeding back into the loan fund.

Here are a few examples of innovative projects second-year students have dreamed up:

  • A bottled hot sauce that's available on the shelves of the campus gift store.

  • Chocolate-covered pineapple, also sold in the campus gift store.

  • Mischka Tours, which offers a variety of tour packages, some of which include musical or cultural presentations. (Gregory and Samuel do double-duty in Mischka Tours.)

In other words, EARTH University students learn entrepreneurship by actually engaging in it. EARTH University's students have a good track record, too: 60% of the ventures have generated a profit.

The students also branch out into surrounding communities to make life better for local citizens. In 2010, EARTH University installed 18 biodigesters for local farm families as part of students' service-learning course. Biodigesters transform waste into energy for cooking and other uses, preventing harmful waste from polluting the environment while saving families valuable time and physical energy, as they no longer have to collect firewood for cooking.

In total, 1,030 biodigesters have been installed throughout Costa Rica by EARTH and the individuals and institutions that have received EARTH's training.

Educational Investments for Impact

EARTH University's model has the capacity to have great impact on the world. The school boasts about 400 students from 25 different countries. About 71% of the students come from rural communities across the globe, and 36% are women.

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Half the students receive a full scholarship that covers tuition, room, and board fees -- a major boon, given the severe economic challenges many of these young people face in their home countries. Another third receive a partial scholarship, and the rest pay full tuition ($36,800 a year). According to the institution's annual report, all students receive financial aid based on need and availability of other scholarships.

Most of EARTH University's funding comes from the EARTH Endowment, plus scholarship and tuition donations. However, a small amount of capital comes from commercial activities, like the campus's working farms that sell goods to Whole Foods.

Lessons for Life

An education is about more than what one gets; it should also be about what one can give back to neighbors near and far.

Over the long term, EARTH University alumni are doing well by doing good and catalyzing change in the world. More than 60% now work in the private sector, and 20% of those run their own business or a family business. Most report having made a positive social or environmental impact, and alumni who graduated more than 10 years ago have created an average of four jobs each.

Productive enterprises that can turn a profit without harming people or the environment will make a brighter future for all of us. It certainly couldn't hurt if more students across the globe started learning to embrace passion, purpose, and entrepreneurial spirit as they seek their educations and embark on their life's journeys.

Motley Fool analyst Alyce Lomax owns shares of Whole Foods and manages a real-money portfolio designed according to socially responsible investing principles for The Motley Fool owns shares of Whole Foods. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Whole Foods.

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