Return to a Medieval Form: Unbundling College

Higher education has been moving toward an unbundled model in which students can buy what they want and disregard the rest. It is like getting the cable channels you view and not paying for the rest. It is almost as if students were beginning to hire their professors.

Once upon a time groups of students did hire instructors. Classes met on a transient basis wherever and whenever they could find space. Students were from many nations. They were often poor and their instructors, since they were employed depending on student demand, were not very well off either. Students and academics found cities to be more hospitable for education than enclaves in the country.

The year was 1088, the place was Bologna. A few years later the experiment was repeated in Paris. These fledgling enterprises soon earned royal charters and began to be administered by the church, and so ended the entrepreneurial, unbundled nature of those start-ups.

Bundling – For the last thousand years, colleges and universities have bundled everything – teaching, learning, libraries, research, physical and spiritual health, sports and recreation, and much more – into an increasing complex enterprise. In the 20th century industrial age, this made sense. Usually it was more efficient and effective to bundle all these functions in one place. More bang for the buck.  Disaggregating teaching, research, libraries and all the other bits of activity was dysfunctional and more expensive.

At the start of the 21st century, maintaining the bundle is expensive, requiring complex financial strategies. The bundling of higher education is made possible by what are known as cross subsidies. For example, revenues from large classes support research and scholarly work. Student fees support athletic programs. Research grants support graduate students. These are among the benefits of the bundled enterprise. All the boats are floated.

Even now in many ways, bundling continues to provide real value. Imagine our knowledge of climate change without the rigor of a science community based in and partially funded by traditional colleges and universities. Imagine the advances in healthcare or space exploration without the science infrastructure made possible by the shared mission of education.

We could go on to consider thousands of discoveries — from agriculture to zoology — that have improved and lengthened human life and increased our understanding of the world. Let us agree that, so far at least, bundling has been good for the planet and our species. Unfortunately, our ability to maintain this model is not so clear.

Unbundling – Today, traditional education is being unbundled by technology and economics, pulled apart by a growing array of alternative learning platforms. Some are digital, embedded in more or less traditional institutions. Georgia Tech’s online Master of Computer Science and the online degrees offered by the University of Southern New Hampshire and Western Governors University are good examples. Others like and Minerva are outside the box non-traditional innovations. Britain’s Open University will soon be offering MOOCs in partnership with American institutions. Competition for students continues to increase.

It’s safe to assume that many digital and hybrid options are not sustainable and will wink out, only to be replaced by others. Likewise, a few will evolve and thrive. Most measures of education concern inputs – cost per student rather than education per dollar. As teaching and learning becomes less about institutions and more about student outcomes that usual equation is flipped. All of these alternatives and more are unbundling traditional higher education options.

The costs and values of undergraduate education are becoming more accurately measured and transparent.  As this happens, it will become difficult to keep the restrictive purchase agreements that offer the traditional “all or nothing” proposition of higher education. Unbundling will affect market share and further threaten the economics of increasingly fragile brick and mortar institutions — so medieval.

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