Volume V, #21
I attended law school when cable television exploded from 50 channels to 500. As law school was pass/fail, we had a lot of time to keep an eye on the new niche channels appearing seemingly weekly. My roommate Dave and I began keeping a list of new channels we half expected to see. The top 10 were:
While none of these came into being (to my knowledge), audiences were fracturing then and continue to fracture today. Aside from our collective love of the NFL, some in the TV business wonder whether “mainstream” programming still exists.
Perhaps higher education should be concerned with the same phenomenon. While we’ve always had trade or specialty schools, the attention being paid to coding boot camps by the media and government makes me wonder whether we’ll begin to see public- and Department of Education-sanctioned purpose-built institutions for every industry e.g., watchmaking.
If so, perhaps some higher education wildcatter will name his or her new Texas- or North Dakota-based school “Frack U.” This would be appropriate, because the fracturing (or fracking) of higher ed. is being driven by two distinct groups saying “Frack U” to mainstream colleges and universities.
The first group is students, who are increasingly unhappy with the status quo. In a Gallup-Purdue survey released last week, only half of 30k college alumni strongly agreed that their higher education investment was a good one. Not surprisingly, the number was significantly lower (38%) amongst alumni who’ve graduated in the past decade. One interesting footnote in the survey: participation in an internship as part of a degree program materially increased satisfaction while conducting a research project with a professor did not. The Gallup executive responsible for the poll sounded the alarm: “If we don’t figure out how to improve [the] value proposition, the great tidal wave of demand for higher education in the U.S. could easily come crashing down on us.” Certainly, the federal government is listening. This week Secretary of Labor Tom Perez told CNN: “Apprenticeship is the other college, except without the debt.”
Second, employers are also saying “Frack U” to mainstream colleges and universities. While employers expressing dissatisfaction with employment preparedness of college graduates isn’t news, some leading employers are starting to do something about it. Following an internal Ernst & Young UK study demonstrating that degrees had no correlation to job performance, college degrees will henceforth be disregarded in that firm’s hiring process. Google, America’s second-most admired company according to most surveys, is America’s most outspoken company on this issue. Its Senior VP of People Operations has said that grades in degree programs are “worthless as a criteria for hiring.” Google has partnered with both Udacity and Coursera in an attempt to develop and deliver shorter, less expensive credentials and now bases its own candidate evaluations on highly predictive custom-developed assessments.
Is all this fracking an existential threat? Are we likely to see the unbundling of the university not only in terms of product (i.e., degrees), but also in terms of specializations? Are multidisciplinary universities sitting on shaky shale?
To answer this question, let’s go back to TV for a moment. The 500 channel universe always seemed unnavigable and unknowable to me until my wife subscribed to Netflix. Netflix disintermediates channels and provides a simple elegant interface to establish a direct relationship with content, and then to find similar content. Suddenly, I’m no longer frustrated by TV (a good thing, since my wife is a TV writer/producer). However, I am frustrated that there isn’t a Netflix interface in other areas of life (like for being a parent).
Another area in desperate need of an updated interface is higher education. I think a lot of the fracking from students and employers comes from a newly developed (and correct) sense that it should be easy to navigate data-rich environments. Higher education is exceedingly data rich, but students and employers are accessing it through the same interfaces as prior generations. Our frustration with higher education is high because our frustration tolerance has declined.
So when General Assembly or Galvanize opens a sleek and modern campus in town with a discrete set of short, accessible programs leading to well-paid jobs (and with no Title IV financial aid), it’s a simple interface that allows students and employers to establish a direct relationship with education. Therefore it’s attractive – and it’s attractive to believe that specialized schools (not multidisciplinary universities) represent the future of all of higher education.
But that would be mistaking the symptom for the disease. My diagnosis is that while the huge advantages to students and employers of combining disciplines are likely to increase over time, higher education remains the most complex product purportedly designed for mass consumption. Not that it shouldn’t be hard to complete a higher education program; that should require creativity and rigor. But it shouldn’t be hard to figure out what to learn and how that learning is or isn’t connected to adjacent topics and disciplines, or to future education or employment opportunities. And the transaction costs involved in starting to learn should be more like walking into the café at the front of a Galvanize campus, and less like doing your taxes.
Some of these interfaces will sit atop what universities are already doing e.g., competency marketplaces and ePortfolios where algorithms parse, extract and match competencies from student work and employer job descriptions. But probably most important to the higher education enterprise is allowing students and employers to interact intelligently with curricular metadata. As this ostensibly requires institutions to organize curriculum in a uniform, coherent and intelligible way, I see three potential outcomes: (1) Colleges and universities upend curriculum development and management practices and force faculty to recreate courses using a standard set of tools, which export searchable, manipulable metadata; (2) Some genius develops a product that utilizes big data technology to sift through disorganized, incoherent curricular materials and provides a simple interface for students and employers to engage directly and meaningfully with curriculum for planning; (3) Neither of the above.
Knowing what I know about higher education and inertia (old friends, these two), I don’t think it’s likely to be #1. So I’m hoping it’s #2 (and that it’s one of our portfolio companies). If not, option #3 could mean colleges and universities are fracked.
While specialty “just-in-time” institutions work extremely well in IT and probably make sense in select other sectors as well, the demise of the multidisciplinary university and the rise of the college equivalent of the Cotton Candy Channel won’t do much to advance knowledge or citizenship. So let’s hope we get this right. Or we could all be fracked.
University Ventures (UV) is the premier investment firm focused exclusively on the global higher education sector. UV pursues a differentiated strategy of 'innovation from within'. By partnering with top-tier universities and colleges, and then strategically directing private capital to develop programs of exceptional quality that address major economic and social needs, UV is setting new standards for student outcomes and advancing the development of the next generation of colleges and universities on a global scale.