Michael Staton is a former teacher, venture capitalist, and founder of Uversity, which is a kind of data nerd Strategic Enrolment Management outfit in the US. He also has some interesting ideas about the “unbundling” of higher education, which have appeared – amongst other places – in Andrew Kelly and Kevin Carey’s recent book Stretching the Higher Education Dollar (ungated copy available here).
His take is that there are four basic groups of services that undergraduate education strives to deliver, and that in at least some of them they face competition from “unbundling” because they could be delivered by alternative providers. While Staton occasionally sounds like he’s drunk too much kool-aid when he talks about the likelihood of things being unbundled, his analysis about the relative ease of unbundling of various services is quite perceptive.
In declining order of substitutability, these four areas are (and I’m paraphrasing his categories a bit here):
- Academic Content: If there’s one thing MOOCs and other OERs prove, it’s that – at the undergraduate level at least – content is mostly a commodity. You can get the substance of an undergraduate degree pretty much anywhere, pretty much for free. Obviously, this isn’t true at a graduate level, which is where all the prestige is, from the institutional perspective. But from an undergraduate perspective…
- Certification of Acquired Knowledge and Skills: All universities offer the same credentials, and the power to offer these credentials remains a gift of the state. Thus, universities as a class are protected, but at the same time they are unable to distinguish themselves from one another through the undergraduate degree offerings.
- Acquisition of Learning Meta-Skills: Universities and colleges don’t just teach subject knowledge, they teach people how to approach problems and solve them (or at least they’re supposed to). Those institutions specializing in (say) co-op or Liberal Arts implicitly have a defined approach to meta-skills acquisition, even if they don’t describe it as such. But most don’t do so. They seem to think that just saying “we teach kids how to think” is enough.
- Life-Altering Experiences: This is the stuff that really can’t be outsourced. The experiences one has while at university – the friendships, the life lessons, the transition from adolescence to adulthood – simply can’t be replicated in any place other than a traditional campus. This is what people really pay for.
What’s interesting here, from a strategy point of view, is the complete misalignment of institutional resources with actual sources of value and distinction. The two areas where distinctions can actually be made between institutions – meta-skills and life-altering experiences – are the areas where institutions spend the least amount of time and effort. In fact, institutions care so little about the latter that they basically leave it to students themselves (which predictably results in some pretty wild swings in quality, not just between institutions, but also over time at the same institution). Instead, institutions toss all their money into the (from an undergraduate perspective) “useless content hole”.
Somewhere, sometime, a university will decided to bring a laser-like focus to the issues of meta-skills and experience (indeed, one could argue that Minerva University is about halfway there. Until then, the misalignment – and the mediocrity of undergraduate studies in general – will continue.