In any ecosystem, if one waits long enough, eventually a cataclysmic disruption occurs. Examples range from ice ages to digital cameras and mobile phones. When an environment becomes out of balance or a system is too reliant on archaic technology, something never-before-seen will come and change the game.
The final years at Blockbuster Video, Kodak Corporation, and Toys “R” Us, all share the consistent systemic failure to respond to disruptive threats: a willful ignorance to reexamine and adjust their product, services, and business model. Higher education is behaving much the same way. Until institutions acknowledge both the impending disruptive threat and the risk of not appropriately responding, higher ed remains a vulnerable enterprise.
Since the proliferation of the internet and digitization of information, we have witnessed several warning signs. Online course delivery, e-textbooks, the rise and fall of large for-profit institutions, MOOCS, certificates, and micro-credentialing have each commanded attention in the past two decades. While some of these innovations have persisted and some failed, each represents a foreshock prior to a large seismic event that we have not yet experienced.
An unchanging model
A longitudinal look at American higher education shows the business model remains unchanged. Institutions continue to cyclically recruit (a dwindling number of) students and steward them through a one-size-fits-all curriculum and delivery model that much resembles the student experience at Harvard University in 1636. Students arrive in late August, take four or five classes each semester and go home in May. After four years, a degree is granted. Though some classes are now hybrid, flipped, online, or leverage other high-impact practices, the overarching student experience is still the same.
In 2018, we live in an on-demand world. Consumers can start and stop television and movie content, purchase only the individual song they like, and are surrounded by digital assistants that can deliver the entirety of the internet through voice commands. Facebook reported 2.19 billion active monthly users in the first quarter of 2018, Amazon serves 310 million customers, Netflix has 100 million subscribers, and Google currently has seven unique products with over one billion monthly active users each. Collectively Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google are known on Wall Street as the “FANG” stocks and share dominance of the tech sector. Though their stocks fluctuate every day, collectively the four FANGs are worth about $1.5 trillion, roughly equivalent to the entire GNP of Canada.
Any of the FANG companies, and even some of their less-well-positioned competitors, has the resources to purchase a university in financial distress, assume their accreditation and infrastructure, and begin delivering academic content and granting degrees. I highlight them not for their purchasing power, but because they have each changed the way we live, consume, expect, and demand content and services. Billions of college-aged people are already users, have linked their profile to their bank account, and have multiple networked devices through which they interact and consume information.