Replacing Higher Education

The business model of higher education is ripe for replacement. Three features of higher ed’s business model stand out as particularly untenable.

1. No one can demonstrate what educational benefit is provided or say what causes it.

One might imagine that students graduate colleges and universities a different person than they started. But reading claims emanating from higher education, one sees little evidence of that.

The College Board’s first and biggest claim is an increase in lifetime earning. (And this claim is eight years old.) But individual colleges don’t sell themselves as providing more lifetime income--which would seem like the logical conclusion.

Certainly, students take courses and earn grades, and in theory those grades are a form of measurement. But what student has ever said “Gee, I’m so glad I can write a better transition now compared to four months ago”?

And--show of hands, please--who can currently recall all the information you were tested on in your non-major courses? Or your major courses, for that matter. I know I for one remember precious little of The Aeneid.

A college’s alumni will sometimes promote alumni connections as a reason for parting with (or borrowing) $200K. Commentators point to a kind of brand value: the competitive edge from going to an exclusive or dominant school. But neither of these says anything about the result of the education.

Some scholars have even argued that evidence should not play a critical role in education. The basic justification is: focusing on effectiveness is ‘undemocratic.’ (Chew on that one a bit.)

Mysteriously, this position is argued by an expert in education, though I think if you read between the lines you will detect a certain defensiveness over the theological mysteries of the profession, rather than a concern for providing a definite benefit.

Aside from meeting on a weekly basis, requiring papers and tests intended to measure learning but not necessarily to cause it, and all courses lasting the same length of time (a semester, quarter or term), college courses have little in common, and it is difficult to believe these elements themselves cause learning.

2. Most of the talent is effectively under exclusive long-term contract, and they are not paid for results.

Okay, the first part--talent under long-term contract--is also the business model for professional sports.

But the comparison is not instructive. Indeed, there’s almost no comparison. In what other ways is higher education like professional sports? Nearly none. (When was the last time you paid $50 to watch a lecture as a form of “entertainment”?)

Faculty are paid largely to teach a specific number of courses. The course size varies wildly, so one instructor may teach two dozen graduate students a year, where another teaches several hundred.

And faculty administrative duties--which presumably keep the doors open--are arcane and often non-measurable. One professor told me recently of the time she spent reading applications for a new hire: she was later removed from the committee for scheduling reasons, and so her time spent produced no benefit for anyone.

Faculty are sometimes rewarded more highly for generating more knowledge, more publicity and more prestige: for publishing, getting grants, organizing conferences, and the like. These are certainly quantifiable, though the benefit to the student-customer can be quite indirect: no one says in a job interview “my professor organized a conference on the sex life of the fruit fly.”

3. Most of the customers live on-site--or at least very close by.

Didn’t factories stop housing the employees in the 19th century? Except of course in China--and even FoxConn is now outsourcing that element of their business. When a sweatshop decides to give up on the business model you are using, you are sort of in a bad way.

And who else houses their customers? I suppose if prisoners were customers, that would be another example--but not a flattering one. In some cases the state does both--educates and punishes--so perhaps a legacy business model is something states tend to favor: I’m not sure what the business model of the DMV is, either.

The customers of higher ed seem to live on-site largely as a matter of convenience: there is no hard-and-fast rule against living off-campus, so it cannot be a core part of what causes learning, or it would be required. This raises the awkward possibility that housing customers on-site continues for financial reasons, not even practical ones.

The elements of a better business model could not be eaiser to find: negate these three features.

1. Determine a deliverable whose mechanism can be understood enough to be replicated.

Yes, the human mind is a mysterious thing.

But there must be some way of selecting a benefit the customer values and providing that.

It could be that certain desirable employers want an employee who can write prose well for diverse audiences, has lived in another culture to become sensitive to cultural differences, and who knows some subject matter related to the employer’s field--medicine, technology, entertainment, whatnot.

Nothing in these three (admittedly somewhat random traits) is highly mysterious. Only the cultural sensitivity part requires the student to be domiciled in a specific location--and that could be East Harlem or Watts or East Palo Alto.

Instead of one general kind of thing called a “college” (all of which have very similar areas of specialization), a more goal-directed learning customer might choose very specific results--even from different vendors.

A smaller, more focused service, or a set of à la carte services might prove more desirable.

2. Compete in a talent marketplace and pay employees for specific results over specific time frames.

If the services delivered could be peeled apart and rendered separately, combined on an as-needed basis by the customer, then the talent providing the services might also be more plug-and-play.

I am not talking about underpaid adjuncts with the same degrees as tenured faculty, doing more teaching and more work for less money.

I am talking about professionals with specialized skills who are paid for specific results.
  • If a school wants a lab which conducts top-flight research that provides a benefit and gives students a place to learn, that has a clear cost and value.
  • If assembling the elements of an effective education requires mentoring and coaching, and some experts can reliably guide students to meeting graduation requirement, that seems to provide a definite benefit.
  • Some experts might be good at delivering specific kinds of information or facilitating certain social interactions required for learning across specific platforms.
  • One-on-one tutoring, mentoring and coaching seems very desirable and may help some customers achieve their goals better than sitting in a room full of anonymous students all scrambling to take notes.
If what drives results and provides benefits is clear, then the value of the labor that supports those ends can also be determined: that’s the intersection of a business model and a labor marketplace. One of the goals of higher education today seems to be to reduce the movement within that labor market, and we should not assume that benefits those selling their skills in that marketplace.

3. Deliver services when and where the customer needs them.

This might be online, face-to-face, on the phone, or a mix. It might involve some mix of a large central location where many services can be delivered, and small satellite locations--the same way we buy food and get health care. (And don’t say universities can’t do this, because there are both state and for-profit schools which disaggregate their services in exactly this way.)

An Objection: Apples and Oranges.

You might object: higher education is so important a value that it cannot be altered. Education is not simply a service: it is a spiritual value, something close to the essence of the human, the ability to learn, to grow, to develop oneself purposefully.

But nothing in that should suggest learning as a service cannot be improved, made better, quantified, delivered better, and composed of many interlocking resources and services. An active educational customer is arguably a better learner and thus one step closer to the goal of education.

Such objections also tend to mystify what education is and does. And when you are selling a service that can cost a quarter of a million dollars or more to get a completed result (a degree), the burden should really be on the people taking the money. At a certain level, higher education is a business--a $289B business--that pretends it is not a business: that it does not need to define, demonstrate or measure its benefit. That can only last so long.

You can say: education as a measurable service and education as a set of values--those are two different things. Granted. But at a certain level, a service is a service. Medical service is very expensive. But medical service providers track results rather closely, and they have some certainty that pill x will work better than pill y.

Psychotherapy? Scientists and health care providers know very specifically which kinds of treatment methods are more successful for which kinds of problems. This is well studied.

If we care about education and learning, we should not make promises based on faith. That is not only charlatanism: it is the antithesis of what we call “knowledge.”

--Edward R. O'Neill


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