No, Google Won’t Replace Higher Education

My friend Richard Eldredge drew my attention today to a piece by Jon Miltimore at FEE called Google’s Plan to Disrupt the College Degree Is Exactly What the Higher Education Market Needs. (If you want to read it, I’ll wait.)

When I first got into IT in the mid-’90s, it was the MCSE, or “Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer” certification that was having articles like this written about it. But higher education has a remarkable capacity to absorb potential challengers, and soon enough people were taking those MCSE awards and using them as transfer credit on the way to earning a degree. Sure enough, one can already do the same thing now with Google certifications.

Don’t get me wrong, having the certification was a lot better than not having it. It was certainly a boost for the start of my career, and one more quick than finishing a four year degree. But IT certifications weren’t a complete replacement in the labor market for an academic credential in the ’90s, and they aren’t today.

Moreover, Miltimore is basing his argument on a number of misconceptions. He says, “Unlike college, Google won’t just hand you a diploma and send you away, however. The company has promised to assist graduates in their job searches, connecting them with employers such as Intel, Bank of America, Hulu, Walmart, and Best Buy.” As someone who spent time working in Career Services at a university, I can assure you that colleges and universities do this too.

He also questions the value of earning a degree. It’s true that much of higher education is wildly overpriced, and that tuition, on average, has risen far faster than inflation has. But it’s also the case that the average person with a Bachelor’s degree earns something like a million dollars more in their career than someone who doesn’t. One disregards ROI like that at one’s peril.

That said, I do think that change is coming for higher education. But I don’t think degrees are going away, I just think that more and more people will wise up to how they can be earned for a small fraction of the cost of doing it traditionally. Well endowed top tier schools will feel little pressure to change and will do so the least. (As I remarked recently, Harvard Will Be Just Fine.) But a lot of the tuition-driven middle and lower tier institutions are sitting ducks for disruption from CBE-based institutions and other innovators, both within higher education and adjacent to it. But even if many of them have to adapt to survive and others fail and are absorbed by the survivors, higher education as a whole isn’t going away. Google and the like may pressure it in some ways and enhance it in others, just as technical certifications have done for decades, but they won’t replace it.