Volume VI, #7
Elder siblings are supposed to set a good example for younger siblings. But as I’ve observed with my three boys, if a younger sibling copies the elder’s behavior too closely, it likely ends in fisticuffs.
This didn’t happen with me and my younger brother Aaron (19 months separation). At least not for a long time. I went to Yale. Then Aaron went to Yale. I got into Yale Law School. Then Aaron got into Yale Law School. I couldn’t have been prouder or happier to be with him.
This changed during our first year of law school, living with Aaron and my college roommate Dave in a 3rd floor garret that ventilated to New Haven treetops via a gaping hole in the roof that provided ample access for squirrels (introducing us to Joe Sweeney from Animal Control who’d lecture us about squirrels – “bunny-rats” as he called them – transfixing us with his one working eye like a character from an Adam Sandler movie).
Not surprisingly, none of the girls we liked were fond of the bunny-rats. Few were interested in as much as a visit until I met Jenny. Jenny was angelic. Beautiful, sweet, the first Jewish girl I’d dated, and not only willing to visit but also tolerate overnight freezing temperatures and rustling sounds. A few weeks after I introduced Aaron to Jenny, he brought a girl home. Also named Jenny, also Jewish, but to me aggressively unpleasant and a long way from angelic and sweet. The Jennies were polar opposites and had no interest in fraternizing (or the female equivalent). As a result, there was tension and I saw less of my brother.
A few weeks later my Jenny (“Good Jenny”) put our kitchen and oven to good use, baking an impressive cake for my birthday that was devoured by my cold, hungry roommates. Encouraged, a few days later Good Jenny produced a batch of oatmeal raisin cookies with the same result. Dave and Aaron expressed their appreciation and were nicer to her. Hearing about Good Jenny’s baking exploits, the next day Bad Jenny whipped up a batch of double chocolate chip cookies. We polished them off, which led predictably to Good Jenny baking a pie, then Bad Jenny baking a cake. And so it went until one day Dave realized the passive-aggressive baking had caused him to gain ten pounds. In the presence of the dueling Jennies, Dave disabled our tired oven and solemnly declared a baking moratorium.
In higher education, I expect we’ll be similarly deluged – not by cookies, pies and cakes, but by new digital credentials. Tony Carnevale, Director of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce describes the current market as “chaos,” what with the panoply of nanodegrees, microdegrees and specializations on offer, but no one setting a standard. It’s only going to get more chaotic, as providers develop new digital programs leading to specific jobs (perhaps even for specific employers). As new credentials become ubiquitous, we may find ourselves only a few clicks away from digital pathways to brave new careers.
Technology ought to be able to transform higher education in three ways: (1) Increase accessibility; (2) Improve efficacy; and (3) Solve affordability. With regard to accessibility, digital delivery has proliferated to the point that any claim that degree programs are not accessible should be met with incredulity (note, affordability is an altogether different matter, as we’ll discuss below). On efficacy, if we can assume an efficient market for these new digital credentials, the programs that survive and thrive will be those that prepare students with the competencies employers are seeking (including core cognitive, executive function capabilities that are assessable competencies, despite what some believe) and that lead directly to good jobs and careers.
Oddly, it’s affordability that I’m struggling with. For although these digital credentials are bound to be much less costly than current degree offerings, I wonder whether we’re all destined to gain the educational equivalent of 10 lbs. when new digital credentials inevitably wheedle their way into the Title IV ecosystem and are as readily available as the cookies, pies and cakes baked by the dueling Jennies. Is radical accessibility the enemy of affordability?
Convenience does have a price. This was illustrated most recently by a study of the 2,000 or so “Minute Clinics” that have popped up in drugstores and Wal-Marts in the past few years to address basic healthcare needs. The study, published in Health Affairs, showed that although Minute Clinics charge much lower prices than doctors or hospitals, the 6M annual visits to these convenient clinics have led to higher spending because consumers visit for conditions they otherwise would disregard. The study found that 58% of visits to Minute Clinics represented new utilization rather than substituting for more costly doctor/hospital utilization. As co-author Dr. Ateev Mehrotra of Harvard Medical School commented to The New York Times, “convenience has an Achilles’ heel.” And this is prior to the impact of digital medicine; Walgreens has launched an app called MDLive, providing 24-hour access to a doctor for $49 per consultation. You probably know people who’d be online with their doctor every day. (I’m thinking about you, Bad Jenny.)
There’s a silver lining in the Health Affairs study, which is that the higher spending is short-term only; the study fails to take into account the longer term benefits of preventive care. If a visit to a Minute Clinic can help forestall or avoid a major health issue, we achieve accessibility and affordability at the same time. This is what CVS has found with its own employees: usage of Minute Clinics that result in fewer hospitalizations and overall savings.
Herein lies perhaps the great fortune in the brave new world of digital credentials: preventive education. As higher education evolves from the most complex product or service purportedly designed for the mass market to the educational equivalent of a Minute Clinic or MDLive, we’ll begin to feel as empowered and responsible for our own human capital development as we do for our health. Whereas most working adults have declared the educational equivalent of Dave’s baking moratorium (i.e., a learning moratorium), in the next few years we’ll begin to utilize competency marketplaces like Skillful to measure our competency profiles against target jobs and careers. We’ll evaluate a plethora of options for closing personal skills gaps and enroll in unbundled postsecondary programs with much greater frequency. And as we develop new competencies through education, assessments and work, our zones of proximal development will come more clearly into view. New jobs and careers will not only open up, they’ll be suggested to us – perhaps by employers seeking to engage future talent based on proprietary competency models. Many of us will respond to these solicitations and enroll in the new digital credentials they recommend.
The ascent of Donald Trump as the likely Republican nominee and the threat of a Trump administration is a logical and unavoidable consequence of the massive economic dislocation resulting from globalized trade plus America’s lack of a substantive social safety net relative to other developed nations. The dumb response – Trump’s response – is to put up walls and retreat from the global economy (or even to threaten to do so). A rational but sub-optimal response would be to replicate a centrally planned and funded retraining (and likely relocation) effort, moving displaced workers to sectors of the economy where there are jobs and hope. But by far the best response is to encourage and embrace the world of new digital credentials. Even if new digital credentials cause us to spend more in aggregate on the development of America’s human capital, they have the potential to render the concept of a dislocated worker anachronistic and obviate any need to call for a learning (or baking) moratorium.
University Ventures (UV) is the premier investment firm focused exclusively on the global higher education sector. UV pursues a differentiated strategy of 'innovation from within'. By partnering with top-tier universities and colleges, and then strategically directing private capital to develop programs of exceptional quality that address major economic and social needs, UV is setting new standards for student outcomes and advancing the development of the next generation of colleges and universities on a global scale.