11.08.2015: The Coming Disruption of Academia
Academia, with its medieval era academic robes and feudal system power structures, is going to be disrupted by technology in ways that will make what has happened up to this point seem inconsequential. While academia has held out longer than some other powerful institutions, it is vulnerable to disruption for the same reasons, and recent trends in higher education have only exacerbated the situation.
Why does disruption occur? In every case, the product or service offered is similar, but the digital alternative to the traditional one has been more convenient and/or less expensive to the customer. When that happens, the transition occurs rapidly. Let's look at some examples. Newspapers used to be big businesses, and they carried great influence and power, but the thing that drove newspapers was advertizing. When Craigslist provided a convenient online alternative to searching the classifieds, newspapers began to lose readership, which started a rapid downward spiral. Apple has been the cause of several industry disruptions. With iTunes, Apple gave music lovers an easy, convenient way to buy music online, and the physical sales of CDs rapidly dwindled. Apple did it again with the iPhone, resulting in the collapse of the previous phone market leaders, Nokia and Blackberry. Amazon disrupted book sales, and later the entire catalog sales industry. Netflix did it for video, and the once ubiquitous Blockbuster video chain ceased to exist within a few short years. Uber seems to be doing it for taxis, and AirBnB for accomodations. Apple has, itself, been disrupted in music by streaming services like Spotify and Pandora. There is no traditional market that is unaffected by digital transformation.
In academia, the first challenges by the forces of disruption, the online and for-profit universities, failed for several reasons. The quality of the education was not very good, and the delivery system was also pretty poor, but the cost was the same, so they produced a bad product that nobody wanted. Defaults on student loans were higher at for-profits, where the degree was of low value, and so funding organizations became more discriminating. Accreditation has also created an OPEC-like cartel but, as with OPEC, all it takes is for a major player to go its own way and the whole thing collapes. Traditional academia has some serious problems too. Problem 1: For decades, a college degree was what the high school diploma used to be; a ticket to a good job. However, that drove everyone, even the grossly unqualified, to go and get a college degree. Problem 2: Colleges got greedy. Willing to accept anyone who could pay, and even those who took on enormous student loans for questionable degrees, colleges saturated the market with graduates and the bachelor's degree became devalued. For a while, universities solved that problem by offering Master's degrees, but now that market is flooded too. Problem 3: Tuition costs keep going up, because of state cuts to higher education, and because highly paid administrators have gone on building sprees to try to make their universities more appealing than those of the competition. Problem 4: To stem the rising costs, administrators have been gradually phasing out the well paid, highly qualified, tenured professors as they retire, and replacing them with low paid, less qualified instructors on annual contracts. This has had the added effect of solidifying the administrative power base, since tenured faculty were often the most resistant to the demands of administrators to lower standards and keep paying students in the pipeline regardless of their potential.
So, in summary, the modern baccalaureate degree is devalued. It is no longer a ticket to a good job, the quality of the education itself has declined, and the cost remains exorbitantly high. These problems create a situation ripe for disruption.
All that remains is for employers to realize that they cannot effectively distinguish between job applicants based on whether, or from where, they have a bachelor's degree, and to begin prioritizing other selection criteria. When demand for the bachelor's degree dries up, there will be a lot of academic real estate coming onto the market as universities collapse. Why won't universities just tighten their standards and produce higher quality graduates? Those with strong reputations will be able to take that approach, because it's not just a degree, but a Harvard or Yale or Stanford degree. But graduates with degrees from "generic university" will find that their diploma is worthless, and that they are saddled with a huge pile of student loan debt that bought them nothing but a 4-year party. The administrators running Generic U will need to rapidly change their institution's offerings, or see enrollment plummet. Unfortunately, universities are led by cautious, change averse people, and so most of those institutions will keep on doing what they've always done and they will fold before leadership has any idea what happened.
The successful disruptors will be the organizations that figure out how to do two things: 1) Rapidly assess the abilities of students (grading students in the way that eggs, or olive oil, or maple syrup is graded, by quality) and sell those ratings directly to employers. Curiously, the lists employers provide do not generally involve any knowledge of the job itself, but rather are heavy on personality traits and attitude indicators. 2) Figure out how to imbue the students with the abilities (something that takes longer and costs more) that employers are looking for and that they don't already possess. This would lead to a program of study based on the missing pieces, much as the "personalized learning" programs are attempting to do. What are those qualities, and how do we teach them? Can they be taught, or can they only be nurtured in those with intrinsic ability? Can we teach enthusiasm, perseverance, integrity, dedication, communication skills, ability to get along with others on a team, some of whom may be annoying? Or should we stick to teaching the kind of material found in textbooks? Does your institution have the answers?