Unbundling Higher Education

The Atlantic had an interesting post about unbundling higher education called “Higher Education is Not a Mixtape“. In this sense, unbundling would mean that you could take college courses in the same way you buy music to make a mixtape: “someone could take an accounting course from a Columbia University professor, and a marketing course offered at the University of Florida, and build his or her own business degree, one class at a time, from the best professors.”
The author posits that this will never happen because people are shopping for an institution, not a professor. In other words, people want “a Harvard education” or to be able to say “I went to Harvard”.

We think that he is probably right that unbundling education won’t totally disrupt the marketplace, but we disagree on two fronts.

1. It is only a minority of the students that are looking to the “name brand schools”. The overwhelming majority of students never dream of getting into those schools and cost is an issue for many. By extrapolating from the minority of top school students, he is presenting a picture that doesn’t exist.

2. Unbundling won’t completely disrupt the marketplace because it is too difficult to standardize and accredit. If we take a look at the example of unbundling that we set up above, who would actually issue the degree? Who will determine the requirements for the degree. So the author is right that people are looking for schools not professors, but for a different reason; they need an accredited degree and who does the accreditation matters.

Perhaps unbundling can play a role in a hybrid manner. Perhaps colleges can allow for a certain number of courses within degree requirements to be taken in an unbundled fashion. This isn’t so much different from accepting transfer credits from a different institution. In addition, taking some “Sage on the Stage” courses from the leaders in their fields has a big appeal.

Higher education is one of the few fields that have yet to be disrupted, but changes are surely coming and some form of unbundling might be part of it. The graphic is courtesy of Michael Stanton who has done some thinking on what unbundling might look like.