Those five simple words should stand at the center of all conversations about higher education; participants in such conversations should recite them on a regular basis. Instead, I hear the drumbeat language of “disruption” — new models of higher education will do to “legacy” colleges and universities what the steamboat did to the sailing vessel, or more recently, what Amazon did to Borders. The disruption gurus see a new business model on the horizon, approaching fast and preparing to vanquish all postsecondary institutions that do not embrace a particular kind of innovation. Those institutions will decline because they cannot compete.
The disruptive steamroller now bearing down on higher education is a product strategy known as “unbundling.” Just as iTunes has driven the album out of the market by enabling consumers to purchase their music one song at a time, students are increasingly able to purchase their degrees, one or two courses at a time, from different providers. “Like steam,” proclaims one Harvard Business School professor together with the executive director of an “Institute for Disruptive Innovation,” “online education is a disruptive innovation — one that introduces more convenient and affordable products or services that over time transform sectors.”
The argument goes something like this. Skyrocketing tuitions have put college out of the reach of millions of Americans (not to mention millions more around the world with access to a computer but not a campus). In a market economy, when a product becomes too expensive for consumers, innovators who can satisfy demand more efficiently will drive existing businesses to the margins — in this case, to the kind of luxury market that prefers a CD to an MP3. Here, the avatars of disruption don’t completely agree: some, like the keynote speaker at the recent Ithaka Sustainable Scholarship Conference, readily admit that “traditional” institutions generally provide a superior education, given the virtues of face-to-face interaction and the multidimensionality of student life; others insist that consumers of such educational Cadillacs are mere chumps, spending thousands of dollars on prestige, along with a “student life” consisting mostly of parties that would be more cheaply and safely held at home.