How the Unbundling of Education is Creating a New & Powerful #HigherEd Competitor

In the past, I’ve referred to the unbundling of education as a buffet instead of a formal pre-served meal, but I’ve more recently decided that the metaphor is too limiting. You usually get all your food from one provider at a buffet. Within the modern education space, you might participate in a gap year program from one company, take dual credit classes in high school from one University, take core classes at a different community college for the first two years, transfer those to a four-year school, leverage an outside tutoring service for extra help, etc. Or, you might sign up for a local service that provides academic support and coaching, but they have you sign up at an online University for the coursework part of the education.  Unbundling is about breaking down various aspects of traditional educational services and experiences into discrete elements, and then seeing them as stand alone resources or sometimes offered in smaller packages by a variety of organizations. Individuals build a complete meal/education by selecting from among the many options.

As such, most online college programs (a sector that continues to grow in higher education) are already partly unbundled, not unlike how many evening and accelerated programs have been over the past several decades. Yes, robust online programs provide access to the full gamut of educational services ranging from the library to counseling, an online space for student networking to career services, tutoring to advising. However, the choice for an online program is, for many, a choice to more fully integrate their studies into the rest of their lives, and usually not to pursue a full-time residential program that immerses them in the University life and culture.

As more people have such an educational experience, they are forming a different idea of what it means to go to college and earn a college degree. Online programs are formats where you are typically less engaged in late-night chats with classmates, extracurricular activities, attending or participating in athletics or sporting events, and many other parts of the social life associated with a traditional, residential college experience (something that is already the minority experience for modern college-goers). There are exceptions, but this remains true for most people earning their degree through a fully online program.

As more people have this academic experience unbundled from the rest of full-time, residential college life, this sets us up for the next wave of educational innovation, the rapid growth and offering of training and education by non-Universities that gain credibility among employers and the broader society. Just as the mass-produced book empowered a new, world-changing educational industry known as the publishing industry, we are now in the early stages of an education industry beyond the walls of academia. Some might protest that these outside organizations are not accredited, but most people in society don’t know or care much about constructs like regional accreditation. They don’t really know what it entails. Knowledge about accreditation details is largely limited to those of us in the field who have to know about it because we need it to keep our doors open.

Yet, there is an entire industry of education providers that doesn’t worry about regional accreditation nor are they bound by their sometimes rigid restraints. They don’t participate in the federal financial aid program or take federal funds, so they don’t have the associated regulations there either. These education startups and education companies could just as easily begin to offer training that is an alternative to a college degree. Granted that their training gains acceptance by employers and those seeking the training (and this is no small matter, I realize), there is little keeping such options from taking a growing share of the education space from colleges and Universities. I don’t expect this to close most colleges in the next five years, but we will see an increase in the number of people opting for these alternatives, perhaps pursuing degrees part-time after securing a desired career. In some ways, this is a natural evolution of the unbundling of education. Higher education institutions may be too regulated and inflexible to tap into the full potential of the unbundling of education, but these other companies are not. Unless regulations change, it seems to me that some of the most significant developments in education will happen outside the walls of colleges and Universities. Perhaps that is already the case.

There are many potential alternatives to this. The move toward a free community college system, for example, might further establish their role in the future. That would partly remove the financial incentive for competition from the for-profit sector, granted these community colleges consistently and adequately prepare people with the knowledge and skills necessary to thrive in the workplace. In this case, some education companies might pivot to more of a B2B relationship with these colleges, which is already a booming, billion dollar industry. Another relates to the growing concept of partnerships between companies and Universities. This is already a model that is working in everything from small public institutions to some of the most elite colleges (consider the feeder-like systems involved with programs like Harvard’s MBA). Yet, another alternative relates to the continued unbundling of higher education “services” such that more people go to work and college at the same time (already a growing trend among many college students) instead of the traditional concept of going to college, graduating and then getting a job. At the same time, the development of for-profit education companies continues. There are resources to fund their start. There is an openness to being agile and engaging in rapid iterations. There is a deep desire to listen to the “customer” (being both the individual and companies seeking to hire those individuals in the future). There are ample employers unhappy with the quality of graduates applying to their jobs. There are people increasingly open to alternatives. Put those together and we have fertile ground for growing disruptive educational innovations.

6 thoughts on “How the Unbundling of Education is Creating a New & Powerful #HigherEd Competitor

  1. Michael Olneck

    RE: “These education startups and education companies could just as easily begin to offer training that is an alternative to a college degree.”

    I am trying to imagine John Dewey’s DEMOCRACY AND TRAINING.

      • Michael Olneck

        “The growing demand for job training and exclusively marketable research marginalizes, when it does not eliminate…courses and teaching oriented toward developing capacities of reflection and insight, the acquisition of multiple literacies, and obtaining a long, large view of human and nonhuman orders” (Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books, 2015, 183).

        “Even when the humanities and interpretative social sciences are accounted as building the analytical thinkers needed by the professions or as building the mind and hence securing a more gratifying life for the individual, they align with the neoliberal notion of building human capital. In neither defense are the liberal arts depicted as representing, theorizing, interpreting, creating or protecting the world…Above all, they are not conceived as providing the various capacities required for democratic citizenship. Rather, they are conceived of something for individuals to imbibe like chocolate, practice like yoga, or utilize like engineering (ibid., 187-188).

  2. Michael Olneck

    RE “Higher education institutions may be too regulated and inflexible to tap into the full potential of the unbundling of education, but these other companies are not.”

    Hopefully, at least some colleges and universities will remain “inflexible,” and refrain from viewing themselves as “companies” seeking to maximize their “customer base.”

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      That will certainly be the case. There remains a demand among the elite and a minority of others who maintain a vision and support for the liberal arts and more traditional notions of the University. At the same time, writing and arguments about these things are largely targeting others in higher education or others among the upper class and elite. There is not a robust, public conversation about this. I do wonder if those of us in the University are not to blame, given how much we tend to look down on (or do not support) scholars who deeply engage with the community, popular media, etc. Some Universities empower and support that more than others. Without that public conversation and the humility to recognize that we need to make our case anew, I suspect that this part of higher education will continue to diminish in perceived value.

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      I think we also diminish the power of our case when the professorate, as a community, is still largely divided on the extent to which we value the science (and art) of teaching and learning.

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