Right before the world closed down and we still did stuff, I took my three boys skiing. None of them will ever rival Steve Podborski or the other Crazy Canucks, but by the end of the day, speed far exceeded ability and they began traversing jumps to put a foot of unnerving daylight between their skis and the snow. On the chairlift, confidence begat cockiness and Zev began commenting audibly on other skiers’ garish skiwear. Then Hal and Leo dreamed up what appeared to be mountain constructive criticism: “Hey you… you’re overskiing.” Or “you’d turn better if you didn’t underski.” More than a few skiiers yelled back “What do you mean?” Another said “Thank you!” The overskiing/underskiing schtick kept us entertained as daylight waned, although it undoubtedly mystified a few actually competent skiers.
College in 2020 is like overskiing/underskiing. The value of the college bundle sounds plausible, but is actually meaningless.
Despite unbundling in other industries like music, television, and air travel, five years ago the value of the college bundle – what higher education institutions charge tuition and fees for – remained plausible and meaningful, albeit precarious, prompting my Cassandra cry College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education. There were two dimensions to the college bundle. First, temporal: a commitment that spans at least four years. Second, spatial: the sprawling, expansive bundle included remedial coursework, general education courses and advanced courses in the major, as well as student support, housing, food service, research, libraries, IT systems, sports, facilities management, healthcare, support of student organizations, admissions, ostensibly career services, and the many other provinces of deanlets. Like a Ginsu knives infomercial (“but wait, there’s more…”), the bundle included so many disparate elements, it was nearly impossible to keep track. And so the ineffable, ephemeral value of the college bundle still made sense at most schools.
But at colleges welcoming students back to campus this fall, the tuition and fees bundle won’t make sense. Dining halls will transmogrify into pick-up locations for grab-and-go boxes, social gatherings will be verboten, sports will be cancelled, and students will be urged to stay in their rooms in order to take classes online. Not that there will be much reason to leave the dorms. Last week Princeton e-mailed student organizations to announce the following closures for fall semester: “practice and rehearsal rooms, student group offices, theaters, recording and media editing studios, student publications center.” Even Princeton’s vaunted climbing wall will be off-limits.
And when viral prevalence and load become undeniable – or if colleges and universities fail to obtain liability protection, or when municipalities and public health departments intervene – students will be sent home for the duration of the 2020-21 academic year while continuing to pay full freight. Remote learning may be effective for the most prepared and motivated students, but no one would seriously argue it’s magical or (remotely) capable of supporting the ineffable, ephemeral value of the bundle that has allowed colleges and universities to set eye-watering list prices for decades. It’s theoretically possible some student somewhere will take a life-changing course this year, but it’s doubtful Steve Jobs would have had a font-epiphany if his calligraphy course at Reed College had been remote.
Bundling works when consumers value different parts of the bundle differently: in cable TV, one viewer can’t live without ESPN, another is obsessed with SharkFest on National Geographic (five weeks > one measly Shark Week on Discovery). In higher education, one student prioritizes playing in the symphony, another being an athletic supporter. But bundling is nonsensical when there’s only one part of the bundle: online classes.
The coming chasm between price and value is already clear to even the most casual observer. TechCrunch, ZDNet, The Guardian, a UK parliamentary committee, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and even The New York Times have weighed in with increasing savagery. And it couldn’t be clearer to students and parents. As one parent tweeted, “As a parent all I can think is that folks didn’t follow proper COVID distancing and mask rules, and it is now ruining half of my kid’s college experience. 3 semesters (which is what it will be) is a big chunk of a 4 yr degree.”
A decade ago, the primary result of the Great Recession for higher education was the emergence of the employment imperative. Seemingly overnight, the vast majority of students – save those from the wealthiest families – became monomanically focused on one thing: getting a good first job. In survey after survey, more than 90% of students said an economic return from the substantial investment was their primary or sole motivation for enrolling.
For the past decade, it’s been unclear how all the ancillary components of the higher education bundle serve the employment imperative. The next year will prove that – for the most part – they don’t. Colleges and universities will continue to award the same degrees as they did for the capacious bundles of yesteryear. Students will discover that dozens of deanlets don’t help them find a good first job. And graduates with three semesters of a one-dimensional higher education experience won’t be at a relative disadvantage in terms of employment, in large part because whether the modality is digital or in-person, schools continue to refrain from teaching the digital skills and business knowledge employers are seeking for entry-level positions. Not that there’ll be many entry-level jobs to be had. For college graduates, the recession of 2020-21 may make the Great Recession look like Hire-palooza, which will only increase their focus on employment and economic return.
Once a vaccine allows a return to campus in the fall of 2021, presidents, provosts, and trustees will try to put Humpty together again. At all but the most selective institutions, they will fail. Covid will reveal the man behind the curtain; the magic of the bundle will be gone, and price elasticity among students and parents will increase dramatically. Magic is nice, if you can afford it. And in a Covid economy, fewer families will be able to. And so next fall will mark the official fall of the higher education bundle.
If they wish to avoid desperate, deep, and debilitating discounting, non-selective colleges and universities have two choices. The first is to lower the price of the bundle. But that’s only possible for the privileged few, or for Paul Quinn College’s Michael Sorrell (like Alexander Hamilton, a host unto himself). The second is to anticipate and embrace unbundling.
In other industries, once unbundling starts, holding fast to the bundle is like hanging onto a sinking ship. Survival requires embracing unbundling, even at the risk of accelerating cannibalization of the legacy bundle. Non-selective colleges and universities should consider the following strategies if they wish to continue to float.
1) Offer new industry-recognized credentials
I’ve written previously about upside down degrees, which ensure students obtain one or more industry-recognized credentials in their first year. While it may be too much to ask stressed faculty to perform upside down contortions, there’s no reason not to integrate valuable credentials at all. This year, as students are relegated to remote learning, colleges and universities can help close students’ price-value gap by adding an industry-recognized certification not completely unrelated to their program of study. Take Google’s new Career Certificates for data analyst, project manager, or UX designer. By providing (or at least paying for) the training – and supporting students through certification exams – colleges and universities can prop up the value of the bundle in the way that matters most. And while Google certificates may give some schools heartburn due to the search giant’s increasingly militaristic stance on the bundle (“at Google we will consider our new career certificates as the equivalent of a four-year degree for related roles”), there are a wide range of other certifications that could be relevant to degree programs and are highly relevant to employers.
2) Be honest about on-ramps
In February, the President of West Texas A&M published a startling confession: “Do not borrow money to attend West Texas A&M University (or any university) for the first two years. If you must borrow, attend community college.” Last week, a father tweeted his gratitude: “Thank you for this great advice. My son will be attending West Texas A&M this fall. He is excited for the new opportunities. He just completed his Associate's degree at Garden City Community College in May, debt free so far.” While all four-year institutions have articulation agreements with community colleges, and some have done good work to ease oft fraught transfer processes, I’m not aware of any other college or university lobbying students who need financial aid to NOT attend for the first two years. But to remain competitive in the post-Covid unbundled environment, that’s exactly what non-selective institutions need to do.
3) Provide off-ramps
While Northeastern University has the country’s most extensive co-op program, the idea of allowing employers to interrupt students’ course of study is anathema even to this employment-focused institution. A Northeastern official shared with me that “students are expected to complete their degrees. Some may continue to work part-time for employers as they complete. But we do not offer off-ramps.” It seems any employer making a full-time offer to an enrolled student would jeopardize its participation in Northeastern’s co-op program. As unbundling is temporal in addition to spatial, colleges and universities can’t be precious about four years of tuition and fees. A good job offer should be cause for celebration, not punishment. At a minimum, schools should actively promote innovative career discovery programs where students can learn more about industries they’re passionate about, and where an off-ramp may be a smarter path than incurring significant additional debt to earn a degree that is unlikely to boost immediate prospects.
4) Partner with new last-mile training providers
Last month, the University of North Florida announced a partnership with Optimum Healthcare IT, a healthcare IT staffing and consulting services firm that helps hospitals implement, configure, and integrate complex electronic health records (EHR) systems. As I’ve discussed previously, the leading EHR platform is Epic. But despite approximately 40,000 unfilled Epic jobs, not a single American college or university provides relevant training. So UNF will host Optimum’s last-mile training program, providing a healthcare IT pathway that is friction-free: students don’t pay additional tuition; Optimum hires and pays apprentices from day one of training. Other last-mile apprenticeships in technology and financial services are now actively partnering with colleges and universities, providing pathways to good first jobs with no additional financial risk.
While online learning remains the sine qua non of keen observers focused on the disruption of higher education, none of the aforementioned strategies for surviving unbundling are online-only or even online-first. There’s no question that students will complete more coursework online post-Covid than pre-Covid. But there’s also no question that the online modality – with current technologies, and as currently utilized – remains limited in its ability to educate traditional age students on the digital skills, business knowledge, and soft skills demanded by employers, and – critically – to engage and complete those students in greatest need of the leg up promised by higher education.
Whatever the modality, winter isn’t just coming; it is upon us. Bachelor’s degrees at non-selective colleges and universities may not be overskiing or underskiing. But the perceived value of the bundle that has sustained thousands of colleges and universities is going downhill fast.