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Why Universities Should See the Alternative Provider Challenge As An Opportunity

The EvoLLLution
Universities should focus on their core competencies and allow non-institutional market entrants to serve the professional skills space.

As the education technology ecosystem grows, products and services are emerging that push into the traditional territory of colleges and universities. The clearest examples are in skills-based instruction for adults.

To illustrate, let me summarize a few we’ve profiled recently on SkilledUp.

  • CPG Camp takes MBA graduates and provides an online curriculum to ready them for positions as brand managers in blue-chip consumer packaged goods companies. CPG Camp’s buyers include the career services offices of the MBA programs.

  • Market Motive publishes online curricula in marketing, including in emerging subjects like digital and social media marketing. Among its buyers are academic programs, which integrate the curricula into courses faculty are teaching to tuition-paying students.

  • Specialized companies like 60-Day MBA, $100 MBA and Fizzle offer intensive business courses, online communities and mentorships that some customers see as alternatives to degree programs.

  • Companies too numerous to name are in a gold rush to meet the enormous demand for instruction in software engineering, UX design and data science in a variety of online, mentored and bootcamp formats.

It’s natural to wonder what makes these products necessary all of a sudden. Why don’t MBA programs prepare its graduates for the open positions? Why doesn’t the marketing faculty develop the curricula for it’s own classes? Why don’t business and computer science departments just admit and train more aspiring entrepreneurs and software engineers to meet the enormous demand and grab some of the market share?

The founders of the startups I talk to generally give two explanations for why a gap in the market has opened up an opportunity for them.

First, universities move too slowly for what the economy and workers need. Job descriptions in the fastest growing categories are filled with vocabulary that hardly existed when the class of 2015 entered college—big data, marketing technologist, app development. Swift, the hottest programming language being taught on platforms like Udemy, didn’t even exist a year ago. In these circumstances, it’s not reasonable to expect universities to ramp up instruction as quickly as needed, so new companies will naturally rush in to fill the gap.

Second, the edtech entrepreneurs argue, universities are “too theoretical” for the purposes of their users anyway. The academic model just might not be very good at teaching applied skills. Even if your local state university campus could move at the speed of business and integrate the latest workplace requirements into their curriculum this semester, it’s not clear they should. It wouldn’t be their strength, and most faculties would argue that it would be a disservice to the students.

In fact, faculty have always argued about that problem, even when the pace of technological and economic change was slower. Any English department with both a literature track and a professional writing major is the result of an unresolved tension in higher ed about its purpose. The same could be said of any computer science department allocating resources across courses in algorithms and programming languages.

Ever since universities have opened up to the middle class, they have debated what the curricula should emphasize. Should it be foundational skills with an abstract value or career readiness courses with a quantifiable ROI? Most faculty are committed to the former (and don’t do a very good job of making their case.) Many students, parents and taxpayers are understandably eager for at least some attention on the latter.

The emerging edtech marketplace exposes that tension and the compromises that result like never before. If a student’s primary interest in post-secondary ed is workplace skills, they have more viable alternatives to university programs every day. I wouldn’t want to be a university administrator whose business model depends on keeping enrollment up. This must be a scary time.

But from a purely mission-focused perspective, I prefer an optimistic scan of the environment that says higher ed has an opportunity to grow even stronger roots. This is the moment to resolve the age-old tension about the purpose of college in favor of the liberal arts. In a world where it is impossible to prepare for a particular job more than a couple years in the future, the most sensible approach is to prepare for every job, and a liberal arts foundation is still the killer app for that.

Now may be the best time for faculty to persuasively argue that it’s a fool’s errand to swap curricula in literary analysis for courses in professional and technical writing. Let the aftermarket take care of that. Or, even better, universities have an opportunity to partner with edtech companies to join strengths—the lifelong benefits of scholarly training on the one hand and localized but tangible benefits of skills training on the other.

Now may be when the answer to the question, “When are we ever going to use this?” is most persuasive. “You’re going to use this to become a leader in your own life rather than just an employee of someone else’s.”

I’m an enthusiastic participant in the new edtech marketplace, but as a lifelong advocate for the liberal arts, my hope is that colleges and universities will be brave and let the skills classes go. Let that market share go. Let the students who don’t particularly want a liberal arts education go, instead of forcing them through a credentialing system twisted into a use outside of its natural purpose.

Young people—and working adults—do need ongoing opportunities to learn practical workplace skills, but it no longer has to be universities and college that provide it. They’ve usually acted like that’s a burden anyway, so now is the time to lay the burden down or at least let new education providers share more of it. Concentrate on the smaller market share that wants and sees the value in a broad-based general education in philosophy, mathematics, science, arts, history and languages.

In short, the smarter play for universities may be to not respond to certain demands from their students. Since new aftermarket providers are doing what universities can’t, universities should refocus on what they do best and what no one else can.


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