As seen in Forbes:

Disruption is often most noticeable in obvious spaces and industries such as travel, entertainment, transportation, retail, etc. Uber and Airbnb excel at meeting the most significant market need with the most efficiency while expanding their models to expand and flex into related spaces (Uber Eats). From apps to Amazon warehouse work as depicted in the Oscar-winning film, Nomadland, The last decade introduced us to the emergence of the gig economy, fractional employment, and rapidly evolving consumer behavior. If you’re looking for what will change the most this decade, it might just be higher education. But It’s not easy to make impactful changes to an entrenched industry. Amazon, J.P. Morgan, and Berkshire Hathaway attempted to disrupt healthcare costs with Haven, and it faltered. Like anything ripe for change, it starts with the problem and opportunity. In higher-ed, there are a few key areas:

Bubble Trouble: The Post Pandemic Economics of Higher Education

The cost of a four-year degree has skyrocketed—the average tuition alone has increased 361 percent instructing, compared to 1963 and 69 percent of college students graduate with a mix of private and federal debt. Yet, it is still valued based on the opportunities it can unlock. However, the average American higher-ed student doesn’t have much choice in disrupting the system. Taking on $100,000 or more likely $200,000 in student debt is seen as the cost of doing business to achieve career goals. Dan Rosenweig, CEO of Chegg, a student textbook company asks “is this the American dream or American nightmare? and asserts that higher education is a bubble.

Tunisha Singleton, an adjunct faculty member of Fielding Graduate University with a PHD in philosophy and media psychology from her alma mater believes diversity on multiple levels poses challenges: “A big challenge for higher Ed continues to be the rather bullish attitude that fuels the hesitation to believe that there are alternative models. Diversity has and continues to be a big problem as well and that is in multiple areas. Yes, the diversity of administration and faculty because representation certainly matters and that is something students can see as well. But also, diversity in approach.” 

In addition to college campus shut-downs, the pandemic has also intensified the professional pivot. With so many people suddenly out of work, there needs to be alternative models. Google recently unveiled plans to provide multiple certificates in a variety of subjects to get people back to work or switch careers faster. This will not wholly circumvent the college or specialized degree, but it does present another option depending on the field someone wants to pursue.

Digital Disruption Is Inevitable

When Google is thinking hard about this, you can bet the industry is taking notice. 3M, Walgreens, and CVS have all partnered with Carrus, a digital education leader, to create quick, high-quality healthcare training that makes a pipeline of qualified talent for their companies. This kind of direct partnership, in theory, creates a faster and direct pipeline of talent for a company, and they can also tailor the education to fit their objectives better. Having a certificate or education program backed by a company looking to hire off that specific expertise is vast and takes some of the uncertainty out of the education process for a job seeker. Minerva, a highly selective online-only university combines a digital-centric college without the campus experience with what feels like an Ivy league value proposition: “nurturing critical wisdom for the sake of the world.” Professors here hold virtual office hours and the digital university attracts global students who never have to leave their home country to attend and graduate. 

Employers in some industries are also getting aggressive in recruiting. For example, Gearbox Entertainment president Randy Pitchford has embarked on a virtual speaking tour at top universities like Michigan State University, the University of Southern California, and more to share his insights directly with students considering a career in interactive entertainment. Pitchford recognizes the need for new ideas and perspectives to keep moving forward. The world’s best game developers ten years from now are probably people who aren’t even in the industry today.

Ben Shank, former CEO of The American Higher Education Alliance and current CEO at Tower Education Technologies views digital disruption differently when it comes to large vs. smaller institutions: “Larger, well known institutions, will likely continue with the on-campus model being their main generator of revenue. They also tend to offer some virtual experiences, but that has only amounted to a small portion of their income. Small-to-mid sized institutions, on the other hand, have a major decision to make. These colleges and universities could continue to struggle and may even be forced to close if they choose to continue to fully rely on on-campus students for their revenue.”

Ben also notes the shifting sands of degrees vs. credentials: “looking at it from a more consumer-based perspective, COVID-19 has opened the doors for traditional and non-traditional students alike to procure an education that is personalized to meet their needs. Getting an education now is less about earning a degree, and more about receiving micro, and alternative credentials.”  

Digital Education Integration Will Lead The Way

Much of higher-ed’s future will go digital to some degree. The pandemic accelerated change but the change was always inevitable. This will not displace the need for in-person schooling, however. Digital education is still viewed as a way to supplement education, create flexibility when needed and allow students to become more proficient faster. It’s why Gartner estimates by 2025, 90 percent of U.S. public school districts will use a mix of in-person and digital remote learning.

Instructure, the maker of the online learning management tool Canvas, has over 30 million users. They have been working with at least 14 states to maximize their digital offerings and prepare for that future. They have also led an initiative with Zoom and other digital companies to help bridge the digital divide as we add more technology to education. Having digital education offerings prepares school systems for unforeseen future events like a pandemic and gives them more options in how they instruct, where they instruct, and when they instruct. Instructure even offers a quick tool to determine how much learning has been gained or lost during this pandemic so school systems can supplement knowledge where needed most. It also can help students progress faster in their education or get specific one-on-one help where it’s needed most. For some, it’s all about flexibility. 

Nathalie Mainland, SVP and GM of Education Cloud at Salesforce envisions a future of learning flexibility: “We see more flexible learning options coming to the forefront which will include more flexible cost structures for students. The four-year degree will persist alongside growing opportunities for credentials, badges, certifications that will provide greater choice for all lifelong learners.” Part of this flexibility includes what she refers to as “stackable credentials”…she expands on this as “the ticket to a more diverse and equitable workforce especially for women, Black, and LatinX workers.”

Overall, while the traditional college campus experience is unlikely to vanish, we are becoming more conditioned around online education. Some students will use digital education to catch up in certain areas, while others can use it to get a head-start in pursuing a career aligned with what they learn. Much like the electric vehicle market, once you see everyone getting into the game, it’s hard to deny that the digital transformation of education will accelerate exponentially. We’re inevitably heading toward a less linear, more flexible, more credentialed and hybrid higher education system that adapts with, and ideally gets in front of change.