Note: This is something of a follow up to No, Google Won’t Replace Higher Education.
My friend Dave Robson over at SpiralMath pointed me to an article by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Becky Frankiewicz at HBR on 6 Reasons Why Higher Education Needs to Be Disrupted.
I’ve seen lists like this for decades, with slight variations, from many authors. They’re not wrong. But I think it’s important to make clear that these things are leading to change within higher education, not its demise. I say that because I’ve seen that the capacity of higher education as a societal institution to absorb alternatives into its existing framework is often underestimated.
When I was starting out professionally in the ’90s, technical certifications were huge. Get the right certification from Microsoft or Cisco and you were immediately employable with a salary as high or higher than many degree holders could command. But those certifications didn’t replace higher education, they were absorbed by it. Colleges and universities began to accept those certifications as transfer credit. At first it was the for profit schools, because that’s where so much of the innovation happens in higher education, but eventually it was commonplace. No longer was “certification or degree” presented as a choice, now it was the first leading to the second. The certification would get you in the door, but the degree would help a lot if you wanted to keep advancing.
It was the same with MOOCs. They too were trumpeted by the easily excitable as the end of higher education as we know it. But instead, MOOC providers have ended up remaining closely held by the higher education industry that spawned them, with OPM-style services becoming as big a part of what they do as the MOOCs themselves.
That’s not to say I don’t appreciate MOOCs for what they are: free or low cost continuing education. Although that does raise the question why anyone would pay $750 for a course from a company like, say, Section4 that they could more or less get nearly for free from Coursera or EdX.
Anyway, now it’s 2021 and we’ve gone full circle, with some people saying, “Why go to college when you can just get a certification from Google?” It sounds like a provocative and timely question only because in higher education journalism, memories are short and everything old is always new again. Here’s my prediction: people will get these certs, and it will help them professionally, yes, and then an awful lot of them will go on and earn degrees anyway.
What really is new, and will have a much more profound impact on higher education as an industry in high income countries, are demographic changes. There just aren’t enough Zoomers to fill all the colleges and universities that were needed forty or fifty years ago, even if more of them per capita decide to go to college. Also different now are the different paths to earning a degree. Residential schools are in bigger trouble than the rest, and COVID hasn’t helped. If young people aren’t going to get that “rite of passage” residential experience as part of their hundred grand, they have a lot of other paths by which to earn a degree that are cheaper and more convenient. That means Podunk College isn’t just competing against the state schools in its region anymore, but against the likes of SNHU who have a huge lead when it comes to distance learning — including marketing it. Some of those schools have folded already. A lot more of them are dead men walking.
So disruption? Perhaps. Development into different forms? Probably. But demise? Well, not as an industry at least.