Unbundling Higher Ed: An Insider’s Perspective

Shrinking state funds, increasing oversight from foundations, competing for-profits, underemployed families, rising tuition, technological disruptions, the uncertainty of future employment sectors, the diminishing perceived value of higher education, and incessant calls for “change” challenge the public university system at its very core. That challenged core affords opportunities, most notably for the private sector — opportunities of which faculty need to take note.

What sort of opportunities? Michael Staton (2012), cofounder and CEO of Inigral, argues that since the collapse of music albums, newspapers, and the industries that depended on them, our constant online engagements transform the conceptual framework for understanding all services, even educational ones (p. 3). Staton goes so far as to define “college” “as a packaged bundle of content, services, experiences, and signals” (p. 4). He insists that this conceptual framework screams “market opportunity” that the university system won’t be able to conceal or protect (ibid). While collecting and analyzing more data than overworked faculty can, entrepreneurs can unbundle and more efficiently produce or distribute many of higher education’s component parts: course content, content sequencing, content delivery, feedback, credentials, coaching, professional networking … (pp. 6-9).

Jeffrey J. Selingo of The Chronicle of Higher Education recounts a conversation with Clay Christensen, Harvard business professor and expert on disruptive innovation. In that conversation, Christensen argued that prohibitive costs warrant new models for higher education. According to Christensen, “The history of innovation tells us those new models are not going to come from within higher ed. They will come from new entrants” (Selingo, 2013, p. xiv).

We already see new entrants and the start of this unbundling process. In 2011, venture capitalists devoted $429 million to educational companies, with an unprecedented 124 educational start-ups (Selingo, 2013, p. xi). Former senior vice president of the Lumina Foundation of Education and president emeritus of the University of Northern Colorado, Robert C. Dickeson (2010) claims, “The extent of the privatization trend has gone beyond outsourcing and now includes both tactical and strategic alliances that hold great promise” (p. 4). The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, for example, endorses collaborative partnerships to improve productivity and efficiency (Eddy, 2010, p. 23). At the 2013 SXSWedu Conference, the president of McGraw-Hill Higher Education shared his having had a recent meeting with a university president who sought a public-private partnership to improve the university’s student-success rate (Lyman, 2013, par. 4). Entrepreneurs no longer have to “seize” opportunities. University administrators solicit entrepreneurial solutions to their most pressing problems.

Companies provide expansive online course supplements with videos, assessments, plagiarism-detection services, essay-grading features, and instant feedback. Here at Austin Peay State University, Degree Compass offers insights into the future of course registration: a third-party service informs student progressions through degree pathways based on individual and comparative historical data. In Fall 2013, we began piloting institutional coaching through InsideTrack. Are these problems?

Instead of digging-in our heels, Staton (2012) argues, we should dig-in our shovels and build the foundations for not only stability, but more importantly institutional, faculty, and student success (p. 11). As best-selling entrepreneurial author Seth Godin (2010) reminds us, “If we can put it in a manual, we can outsource it. If we can outsource it, we can get it cheaper” (19). Cheaper can lower tuition and decrease the amount of debt students and their families incur. So the question becomes, What do we do that can’t be outsourced or automated? Or put more melodramatically, If digital or other services unbundle us, what of value do we have left?

Of course, this melodramatic search for a ghost in the educational machine overlooks the obvious. The professorate and on-ground collegiate experience provide well-documented, irreplaceable value — most notably, in faculty-student interactions and engagement with peer diversity. Professors model the thinking patterns, attitudes, and behaviors — what Staton (2012) calls the “meta-content” in faculty-student interactions (p. 24) — that lead to student success and lifelong learning. Sustained engagement with diversity fosters critical-thinking skills and prepares students for global citizenry. Entrepreneurs couldn’t easily unbundle or more efficiently distribute what, in its core, is a collection of quality human relationships.

If we were to play devil’s advocate in support of the disaggregation of higher education, we might conclude that what entrepreneurs can unbundle and redistribute can enable faculty to concentrate their efforts where they have the greatest impact. Any degree of “flipping” a course, for example, aims to relegate solitary learning practices (like watching lectures and taking quizzes) to online engagements and, more importantly, to open the classroom to in-depth peer-engagements and faculty-student interactions. Automated course-registration systems and outsourced institutional coaching — another two examples — can liberate academic advising for more valuable faculty-student interactions. From this perspective, the faculty’s time is not only precious, but also poorly allocated. Disaggregating the professorate does not necessarily diminish, but rather potentially augments the professorial role in student development and learning.

Since the 1950’s, the faculty’s role has changed from scholar to “academic professional” (Sorcinelli et al., 2006, p. 2). In large part thanks to Ernest L. Boyer’s Scholarship Reconsidered (1990), the professorate transcended “the tired old teaching versus research debate” (Boyer, 1990, p. xii), specifically by shifting attention from teaching to learning (Sorcinelli et al., 2006, p. 3). Faculty redirected their attention from defining their responsibilities to exploring the different means and venues for student learning. This new direction enabled a more diverse interpretation of the professorate. In Boyer’s (1990) words, “The richness of faculty talent should be celebrated, not restricted …. Such a mosaic of talent, if acknowledged, would bring renewed vitality to higher learning and the nation” (p. 27). While temporary-faculty contracts centered on teaching, tenure-track and tenured positions exploded with responsibilities, ranging from the acquisition of grants to the performance of administrative duties (Sorcinelli et al., 2006, p. 4).

In part due to the disaggregation of services that can be standardized or automated, faculty responsibilities continue to diversify, most notably to include co-curricular learning opportunities. Academic advising, for instance, is in the process of transforming from course registration to “an educational process” with its own distinct learning outcomes (Campbell and Nutt, 2008, p. 4). Similarly, George D. Kuh (2010) highlights student employment for its potential integration with the curriculum (para. 4). In fact, Kuh (2008) speculates that higher education can frame both on- and off-campus employment “so that work enriches, rather than competes with or is orthogonal to, an institution’s learning goals for its students” (p. xii). One might go so far as to claim that service-learning has enabled universities to formally explore, beyond internships, how to expand educational oversight and credit to community practices. From advising to other co-curricular interactions, faculty increasingly impact student learning inside, between, and outside classrooms with greater intentionality. In other words, this process of automating or outsourcing low-value work in fact has the potential to concentrate the faculty’s high-value efforts on the very essence of education, while broadening the physical and temporal domain of student learning.

But that potential utopia can give way to a potential nightmare if faculty don’t take the lead in these externally imposed frameworks for change. We operate in an environment in which the only way to warrant funding from foundations, private donors, or even certain components of state funding formulas is to make constant changes, regardless of whether those changes clearly benefit students before broader implementation. If the faculty do not take the lead by proactively (but selectively) implementing national trends, then foundations or entrepreneurs might influence administrators, state legislators, or the governor to implement them without faculty insight or oversight, and student movement to a degree could supplant the primary reasons for the degree.

Disaggregating services can help us identify, assess, improve, or even reimagine the packaging and delivery of services we already, albeit often unconsciously, package and deliver to students, alumni, and the community. Unbundling, automating, and outsourcing services can improve efficiency and liberate otherwise encumbered human, technological, spatial, or financial resources.

But if faculty willfully ignore or blindly reject the growing number of external models and pressures for such approaches, then those who reside solely outside the classroom will doubt and ignore the ghost in the educational machine. Unaware of the differences between content and meta-content, they will manage these changes in the absence of those who should lead them.





Boyer, Ernest L. (1990). Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professorate. New York, NY: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Campbell, S. M. & Nutt, C. L. (2008). “Academic Advising in the New Global Century: Supporting Student Engagement and Learning Outcomes Achievement.” peerReview. 10 (1), pp. 4-7. Web. 7 July 2013. <http://www.aacu.org/peerreview/pr-wi08/prwi08_AcAdv.cfm>

Dickeson, Robert C. (2010). Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services: Reallocating Resources to Achieve Strategic Balance. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Eddy, Pamela L. (2010). Partnerships and Collaborations in Higher Education. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Godin, Seth. (2010). Lynchpin. New York, NY: Penguin Group, Inc.

Kuh, George D. (2008). Forward. Five Impact Practices: Research on Learning Outcomes, Completion, and Quality. Jayne E. Brownell and Lynn E. Swaner. Washington, DC: American Association of Colleges and Universities.

Kuh, George D. (2010). “Maybe Experience Really Can Be the Best Teacher.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Web. 15 July 2013. <http://chronicle.com/article/Maybe-Experience-Really-Can-Be/125433/>

Lyman, Frank. (2013). “Making Public-Private Partnerships Work in Higher Education.” The Huffington Post. Web. 16 June 2014. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/frank-lyman/making-publicprivate-part_b_2884747.html>

Selingo, Jeffrey J. (2013). College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students. New York, NY: New Harvest.

Sorcinelli, Mary Dean; Austin, Ann E.; Eddy, Pamela L.; Beach, Andrea L. (2006). Creating the Future of Faculty Development: Learning from the Past, Understanding the Present. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Staton, Michael. (2012). “Disaggregating the Components of a College Degree.” American Enterprise Institute Conference, Stretching the Higher Education Dollar. August 2, 2012. Web. May 2, 2013. <http://www.aeig.org/events/2012/08/02stretching-the-higher-education-dollar>


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