What’s In Your Bundle? A Pared-Down Future for Higher Education

College DisruptedWhen I used to think of bundling, two thoughts come to mind. The first is colonial America’s enthusiasm for torturing love-struck adolescents. Parents would place young couples in a bed with a wooden “bundling” board between them. The covers would be tied down and the aspiring couple would be able to converse and sleep, but not touch.

The second is having to pay my cable provider for a slew of channels that do not interest me to watch one that does, like Turner Classic Movies. I do not want to pay for things that I do not want. This kind of bundling is the focus of economists, who argue that over time, bundled services are often under pressure to come apart.

When contemporary commentators write of higher education as “bundled,” they are referring to the fusing together of many parts of the traditional college experience with what they see as more fundamental: learning a particular discipline or skill. For example, you may just want to learn how to do a specific analytic task to get a job, but a bundled college experience may involve the arts, communication, and critical thinking. This can be expensive and inefficient. For those students who are living in dormitories and studying full-time, a robust social life including attending varsity sports, and all the accouterments of a traditional education may be part of that costly bundle. Higher education should give “bundling” due consideration.

The underlying challenge of bundling and its corresponding premise – that colleges and universities do too many things to do the important things well and efficiently – is at the heart of Ryan Craig’s College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education. It is a provocative read, peppered with asides, commentary, and autobiography. Craig is right and wrong – and cheerfully argumentative throughout.

Craig brings an interesting background to the task. A Yale undergraduate and JD, he started his career as a consultant for McKinsey. He followed that up with a stint at Warbug Pincus, a private equity firm, where he oversaw the growth of Bridgepoint Education. Bridgepoint was one of the nation’s fastest growing for-profit education firms in the period when government loan money was easy and government oversight was lax. Those days are now over and the firm has seen its enrollment shrink dramatically and its stock drop precipitously.

Craig was gone before any of this happened. He led Wellspring Camps, a successful company offering weight-loss camps for children and teens. Today, he is managing director and founder of University Ventures, “the only investment firm focused exclusively on the global higher education sector.” Clearly a savvy businessman, Craig’s perspective, his comfort with popular culture, and his willingness to engage publicly – he blogs regularly for Forbes – make for an unusual combination.

In the book Craig identifies three existential crises facing higher education. Like many others across the spectrum, he sees a crisis of affordability. Too many students have too much debt. Too many, in college and out, question whether the time, tuition, fees, and opportunity costs are worth the cost of a college education. Education, he believes, rests on a value proposition that is increasingly out of alignment with the economy. Law schools, which are in crisis because of rising tuition and the lack of law jobs, are the canaries in the coal mine, he writes.

Like many in business, Craig faults the academy for managerial ineptitude, a crisis of governance. This, he claims, is because higher education has unclear objectives. Colleges do not maximize or optimize. Instead, they inefficiently chase inputs through an aggregation of programs, initiatives, and administrators (“deanlets“). He argues that colleges and universities foolishly focus on the “4Rs” – rankings, research, real estate, and rah! (sports; he wants to maintain the alliteration).

“Nearly all traditional colleges and universities focus on what’s easy to measure (the four Rs)  rather than student learning and employment.”

Shared governance (administration and faculty working together) is also a problem because it is a brake on change. Craig’s third crisis, of data, is not as clearly defined. He would like to see the unit record system, a plan to have the federal government track the educational behavior of each college student, enacted. Again, he believes that there is no true attention being given to student learning.

Compounding this sad state of affairs is what Craig calls pernicious isomorphism, the forces that make shapes and organizations look the same. He claims that most colleges and universities are chasing the same goals and building the same models. This argument is at the heart of Clayton Christensen’s book, The Innovative University. These writers believe that most institutions are trying to look like a variation of Harvard. Proof for this somewhat elusive, but it can be found if one wants to find it.

Craig’s future envisions a “great unbundling.” Elite students and institutions will offer a holistic “traditional” education with the 4Rs and much more. The rest of us will look for education as a competency-based service, more often than not delivered through technology. He believes that for-profit education has been unfairly maligned. Once its reputation is restored, Craig expects that it will expand the range of options and delivery systems available to students. In this future, general education for many of these shorter, competency-based programs will be bypassed. It is lengthy, costly, and does not necessarily meet the demands of students or putative employers.

At a high level, Craig is right to focus on the value proposition underlying higher education. It rests on the belief that the time, money and work in a college education will lead to a better life. What he does not understand is that a college education is much more than a transaction. It is a transformation, a sharing of identities, and a passage of life with tremendous personal and societal impacts. Being college educated is much more than having a few letters after one’s name or being able to perform a skill or task. It is process, experience, and a cluster of ways of thinking and doing that give a graduate the heightened capacity to deal with the vicissitudes of modern life. And we hope that students are able to do so successfully.

Higher education is deeply concerned with outputs. Student learning is our primary responsibility. It is not as entertaining to watch as college football, but it is what college is all about. Some institutions and individuals communicate that more effectively than others. As for rankings, outputs are a major component of how they are established.

All of higher education appreciates the importance of research. A limited number of universities and colleges place research in their missions. An even smaller number prioritize research. The argument that a disproportionate focus on research is undermining American higher education simply does not hold water.

Is a college education too expensive for many? Absolutely. Did too many institutions spend too much money on facilities in the hopes of attracting more students? Probably, but the alternative may not make good business sense. Craig is correct in arguing that bundling – a holistic college education – will remain prevalent when students believe it has clear value. Craig is incorrect in asserting that isomorphism is pernicious. Best practices may lead institutions of higher education into similar practices and policies. And many students, if not most, want to be able to experience much more than the learning of an employable skill. Meaning in life often rests on making meaning in work, and that demands critical questioning, thinking, and growth.

The response to the challenge of affordability is not to promote digitized for-profit training as a viable alternative. What Craig does not appreciate is that the value of a bundled education remains very strong. The challenge for us figuring out how to make it affordable and effective for more.

David Potash

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