- College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education by Ryan Craig
It is becoming more evident in higher education research that faculty members are no longer the voices most often heard in public discussions about the supposed crises within the system (Haslam, 2012; “Higher ed’s illusions”, 2014; Gross, 2015). Instead, independent think tank members and policy wonks are attending professional rather than academic conferences, joined and sponsored by venture philanthropists and private education technology companies that all have their ears and eyes open for The Next Big Thing that will save higher education once and for all. Ryan Craig is one of these external playmakers, currently a founding Managing Director of University Ventures—“the only investment firm focused exclusively on the global higher education sector” (University Ventures, 2015)—and previously having worked elsewhere in the for-profit sector, including Bridgeport Education and Columbia University’s decommissioned online learning community project, Fathom. His book, College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education, is a vision of the future that resonates with those who are truly in the business of higher education.
American higher education’s great strength is in the diversity that allows excellence and access to co-exist in the system—though not in the same institution—but, as Craig and others before him lament, the rankings race of every college trying to be the next Harvard despite centuries-long handicaps are betraying that strength. Craig argues that because of schools focusing on “the four R’s … Rankings, Research, Real Estate, Rah! (sports)” (p. 9)—all contributing to rising costs—rather than curricular workplace relevance, higher education is risking a “dystopian counterfactual” (p. 12) valuation of degrees as hollow representations of bureaucratic endurance rather than employability. Craig lines up the problem facing higher education: “the three crises—(1) affordability; (2) governance; (3) data” (p. 15). The issues of affordability have been covered before—rising costs, diminishing state support, and confusion about the right way to provide financial aid to the right students—but the latter two are more controversial.
Craig sees inefficiency in governance, with “unclear objectives” and “shared governance” as his top targets, along with trustees who are unwilling to question administrators in order to refocus on quality and access. For him, the problem of quality is a data issue, in that student learning has not been quantified, which he finds illogical; “all of this is mysterious as religion. In an age of terabytes of data, it’s shocking. It’s no wonder that dystopian doubt has crept in” (p. 59). Rather than joining such valiant efforts as the Gates Foundation’s Voluntary Institutional Metrics Project, colleges and universities are focusing on those four R’s. But, Craig sees great potential for change in the growing role that technology has been having in postsecondary education.
This list of “crises” is hardly new, but his proposed solution for disrupting the system into change rides on the latest trends in reform proposals. The disruption, which Craig calls “the Great Unbundling,” is a futuristic scenario where degrees are broken down into bite-sized competencies that can be identified and consumed for a given job without any unwanted leftovers, a just-in-time education warehouse hosted on an online platform that can make efficient bridges between almost-qualified candidates and the jobs [End Page 463] of their dreams. He is not alone in identifying this as an upcoming hot trend in higher education; the Chronicle of Higher Education also listed unbundling as a trend for 2015, describing it as “education á la carte” (Young, 2015). Ideally, these education bites are determined by job competencies rather than traditional course objectives. As a bonus, this warehouse could also be used to export quality American education abroad, creating a worldwide market for higher education brands that expands beyond foreign branch campuses into alliances with non-education brands.
Craig’s recommendations for what higher education institutions need to do in order to prepare for this inevitable disruption include reflecting job competencies in curricula while increasing rigor, building relationships...