Will Higher Education Be the Next Industry to Get Unbundled?

An article on forbes.com talks about about “the next assault on the Ivory Tower.” What does it see that assault as being? The unbundling of the college degree.

It looks to other industries as earlier examples of unbundling: music CDs by iTunes, airline tickets and the recent unbundling of cable TV packages. The article contends that “employers don’t appear to be searching for degree alternatives” but rather at ways to unbundle the components (courses) into the “discrete skills and competencies most predictive of success in the workplace.”  For one thing, this would mean an end to the general education requirements required for a degree.

It was only three years ago when all the talk was that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) were going to disrupt degrees and colleges. That didn’t happen, although the MOOC movement certainly set a number of things into motion that may ultimately lead to degrees being unbundled.

The article’s author is Ryan Craig, managing director at University Ventures, which is described as a private equity fund focused on innovation from within higher education. He is the author of College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education. One of his premises is that the “unprecedented data sharing and transparency between higher ed and labor markets” will lead the way.

I am not so sure that there is this sharing occurring. It may be that it is happening, but it’s not in my purview. If universities and employers are sharing this data and they are doing so in order to determine what courses lead to the employer outcomes that they are looking for, then unbundling would occur.

I can see benefits for students – lower tuition costs, shorter periods of study leading to jobs – and benefits for some employers – customized programs for their industry. But what are the advantages for the colleges?

Ryan Craig refers to LinkedIn as a “competency management platform.” That’s a new term to me. Apparently, linking uploaded resumes, transcripts and competencies and mapping those competencies to specific jobs or careers will allow matches for employers and job applicants.

Is this the end of the university? Craig says, no. He still sees it as the locus of educational content and talent and the places that will produce the coursework. The university survives; the degree does not.

Will higher education refocus on the bottom line returns that probably matter most to a majority of students – employment and wages? Just as it was predicted that MOOCs wouldn’t impact the elite universities as much as it would the smaller schools. Those elites are the ones whose reputation still relies heavily on the “four Rs” – rankings, research, real estate, and rah! (i.e. sports and other aspects of campus life). Don’t those elite students also want jobs and great wages? Of course, but their path has been and will continue to be a different one from the majority of college students.

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