Disruption in the Force of Higher Education

When online degrees by the commercial entity University of Phoenix began in 1989, it introduced a new market segment. When Your Town Community College began offering online courses, it was a new revenue stream.

When Your State University added an online component of its face-to-face courses in order to optimize its use of brick and mortar classrooms by reducing the number of classroom meeting times per course, it was cost effective.

Now It’s Online and Free

The real disruption, which David Brooks last Thursday likened to that which has already overtaken newspapers and magazines, is about to happen to the elite of the higher education institutions: completely online and  completely free courses.

Most of my local and world news has been freely mine for years. The last time I bought a newspaper was probably 9/11  and that out of shock. I needed something tangible to hold on to. These days I’m not sure how my local newspaper company stays in business. And magazines? The print edition isn’t keeping them in business, more of a convenience or a perk or a side effect of my online subscription.

With Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Michigan, Penn, Princeton, Yale and Carnegie-Mellon professors offering the best of their best online, what will happen to the ‘print edition’ – the college degree?

You scoff. You say I will still need and want, and be willing to pay for, that piece of paper and the invaluable relationships and community derived from a campus where ideas can flow and be freely exchanged in a multiplicity of well-crafted and ad hoc face-to-face encounters . Yes, I think that’s true for many.

But to which of those institutions will those who want (and can pay for) that experience go? How will they evaluate and compare? Will the campus visit be discarded or augmented by a sampling of the best online courses? Will those institutions with  the most credible and engaging online Instructors have the highest application rates?

I’d say some of our nation’s best institutions are banking on it.


By some this may be interpreted as a reaction to another disruption in the force, the devaluation of a college degree. Although debatable as to how the devaluation began, I think we can agree that the combined and systematic factors of recession, spiraling costs, and glut of degrees (sometimes less than meaningful indicators of skill to employers) on the market are yet another indicator.

Portfolio Alternative

Yes, my colleagues, the business of higher ed must change. We must be more fluid, provide more options, become more conversational, do more research and foster more collaboration, and become even more personal – for that is our strength in the midst of all of this, is it not?

Otherwise, the pick-and-choose disruption sends our potential students to create stand alone personal portfolios of their intentional, or cobbled together, meaningful, or haphazard, experiences including exemplary (and free) online courses, and presenting that, with greater and greater finesse and effect, to employers…. without our college degree.

Innovation, Entrepreneurship, Yes, in This Context Too 

Our Schools of Business are busting their chops on new curricula, new Centers, new whatevers, to build and create curricula training the next leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, our administrators dally around doing business as usual or responding with incremental movement. With disruptive forces all around us, revolutionary innovation then, must be something we not only teach, but something we also do.


One thought on “Disruption in the Force of Higher Education

Comments are closed.