The Ingredients for Higher Education Disruption

Higher Education has not yet experienced a major disruption like other cultural institutions, but that time is coming. As some of you know I have served as the president or director of three small higher education institutions over the past eight years. I have worked in higher education administration since 2001. This is a world I am familiar with. I have also been deeply immersed in arena of tech disruption. I have watched the music industry be disrupted by iTunes. I have watched the print news be disrupted by online journalism. We are watching the disruption of TV and Cable programing as YouTube and Netflix grow in popularity. Age old cultural institutions are capitulating— being disrupted — by the innovation of the internet. But to date this has not happened to higher education.

One might disagree with this premise and point to the rise of online education. But that does not constitute a full blown disruption of the institution as we know it. The for-profit college concept made an attempt at disruption, but they were thwarted by government regulation.

The disruption I'm talking about will be evident when major colleges and universities begin to shut down because they cannot keep up with the new option (whatever that may be). That has not happened yet… but it will.

This does not mean that higher education will cease to exist. But college, as we know it, will radically change. I am convinced of this fact and these are the seven reasons why.

The Disruption Trend Shows No Sign of Stopping

The concept of the internet has been on a warpath against every industry and institution. There are very few areas where the internet has not made it’s reach known. Just looked at the track record of the internet should cause us to say that there is an inevitability about change.

There is a Growing Sense That Higher Education is Inadequate in its Current Form

Recently James Altucher — a successful investor and entrepreneur — stated that the University is a scam.  James also elaborated on his blog. He isn’t alone in his opinion. Jason Calacanis reiterated this same point when he appeared on the 20 Minute VC Podcast. PayPal founder and legendary VC Peter Thiel paid 24 young adults $100k to drop out of college. These examples are only the tip of the iceberg. There are a number of thought leaders within the culture that are critiquing higher education. Their complaints include: The learning process is analogue in a digital age. The delivery of information is not personalized for the student. The classroom is too theoretical and disconnected from real life.

Mounting Debt from Student Loans

College debt is a significant problem that is gaining a lot of attention. According to a recent Washington Post article student’s college debt is estimated be $1.3 trillion dollars. This site gives a run down on the numbers. Forbes wrote in 2014 on why student loans are a unique form of debt that are toxic for the US economy.

The Meaninglessness of a Degree and Proof that College Does not Equal Success

To say that a college degree is meaningless would idiotic. There are plenty of statistics that show a person with a bachelors degree earns more then a non-degreed adult. But as the Economist pointed out a few years ago, that return on investment is decreasing. The debt load combined with the economy has contributed to a decline in value for a college degree. If that trend continues there will be less and less incentive to pursue a degree.

The Rapidity of Change Within Particular Fields

Many fields, especially related to technology, are evolving so quickly that a four year education becomes outdated. The only way to keep up with the change is to always be learning. In these fields it doesn’t work to front load your education at the start of your career.

The Broad Access to Information That Was Once Only Available in College Classrooms and Libraries

Access to information is one of the biggest reasons for disruption… not just in higher education. The easy access of info is changing all of education. Once upon a time the information that you would learn at University was only available through direct access to the professor or through elite libraries. Now anyone with a computer (mobil phone all the way up to a desktop) can access this same information.

Evidence That Successful People Don’t Need a Degree

Stories about successful entrepreneurs that didn’t finish college are becoming more and more common. Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs come to mind. Business Insider has created their own list of rich college drop-outs. As more and more people succeed without a college degree there will be an impact on the psyche of potential students. If their hero didn’t need college to succeed why should they?

These seven factors lead me to believe that higher education is ripe for disruption. The current product is poor to moderate. The delivery methods are antiquated. The competitive edge has greatly diminished. The costs have skyrocketed. And the results have diminished. Higher Education is extremely vulnerable to disruption.

One of the major factors that will delay the disruption time frame in higher education is government regulations. The government is fairly active in regulating the changes that take place in higher education because they are funneling grants and loans to students. This was seen most recently when the government cracked down on for-profit colleges. Until new government regulations were rolled out in 2010 for-profits colleges were steamrolling the industry. For-proffit college pioneer, Michael Clifford, spoke about this in an interview with the Phoenix Business Journal.

Government regulations have only stalled the inevitable. Higher education disruption is coming. It is only a matter of time.