Disrupting the Disruptors: Why Traditional Higher Education Isn’t Dead Yet

Disrupting the Disruptors: Why Traditional Higher Education Isn’t Dead Yet
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File

Debate in Washington continues to rage about policy alternatives designed to pressure colleges and universities to change. Some tackle college costs. Others open the door to lucrative subsidies for nontraditional and unaccredited programs. Inspired, perhaps, by Silicon Valley’s infatuation with faster, cheaper alternatives to college, many of these arguments are built around the assumption that our higher education infrastructure is weak, brittle, and ripe for disruption.

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But the demise of our traditional colleges is largely exaggerated. After a decade in which traditional colleges may have lagged behind the innovators, higher education institutions are now poised to disrupt the disruptors.
Critics fail to consider that higher education, for all its sins, has a record of reinvention as the labor market evolves. Many of today’s top institutions first launched as 19th Century upstarts to challenge the Ivy League and early elite colleges of the East Coast. Four generations ago, higher education retooled once again for the needs of postwar America through the G.I. Bill., putting a college degree and a middle-class life within reach for millions. 
So while higher education may seem slow to respond to the latest technological or economic shifts, our rush to create entirely new pathways may be misguided. 
Online learning, once largely the province of the much-maligned for-profit sector, is now booming among private non-profit and public institutions where an increasingly diverse student population is demanding greater flexibility. About one-third of students are now enrolled in at least one online course. And more than two-thirds of those students are enrolled at public institutions.

More recently, colleges have begun to adapt in ways that reflect the success of coding bootcamps, which enroll students in short-term, intensive programs in fields like web development and design. Once heralded as a replacement for the computer science degree, the rise of the bootcamp may now be foreshortened by competition from traditional universities that are beginning to assimilate coding and data science programs in ways that align the durability of the degree with the sometimes ephemeral demands of our modern labor market.

The result is an experience that brings the sort of workforce relevant skills employers are looking for into academe, without sacrificing the benefits of credentials backed by the reputations -- and the accreditation -- of renowned institutions. California Polytechnic State University, the University of Denver, the University of Minnesota, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Wisconsin have all launched coding bootcamps in recent years, ranging from 24 to 26 weeks in length. The programs are offered to non-students, students, and graduates alike, though there are often discounts for alumni. 

Traditional colleges are also using new technologies to capture and deliver lectures and other learning materials to online students—many of whom must balance their educational obligations with family and work responsibilities. Institutions like the City University of New York have been offering blended courses for two decades. These hybrid courses, which combine the access of online learning with the personal touch of in-person education, ensure that traditional institutions still have much to offer today’s students. 

And it is not lost on traditional colleges that the way students finance education must evolve. Early adopters of income share agreements (now widely adopted by coding bootcamps) include Purdue University, which launched its “Back a Boiler” program in 2016 to help students avoid costly, private loans. The program has, so far, provided more than 750 students with $9.5 million in funding. Colorado Mountain college launched an ISA fund to help Dreamers, who remain barred from most traditional loans and grants, to swap future earnings for tuition. 

Despite Silicon Valley’s assumptions about the stodgy and stubborn nature of traditional postsecondary education, colleges and universities are often remarkably—and surprisingly—good at adapting and surviving. In fact, of the eighty-five institutions in the Western world established by 1520 that still exist today, seventy are universities.

Even amid the challenging market conditions, college leaders are more than capable of recognizing the educational trends that can best help their students succeed. They are learning from the disruptors -- and, in time, they may well create new disruptions all their own.

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