Don’t Panic or: How to Survive an Avalanche

The destructive, unpredictable, landscape-altering power of an avalanche is the metaphor Sir Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly, and Saad Rizvi aptly use to capture the forces bearing down on the global higher education in their new report. They apply the metaphor well, warning the establishment that the only thing one cannot do in higher education currently, as when in the path of an avalanche, is stand still.

It is worth extending the metaphor further to illuminate two other realities facing the field. First, once an avalanche hits, struggling is not only futile, it is self-defeating. Thrashing only causes you to sink into the snow and suffocate more quickly. It is hard not to think about this grim phenomenon when reading about second and third-tier colleges in the US taking out unsustainable debt to construct gleaming, educationally-irrelevant buildings in a desperate bid to climb the ladder toward the Harvard apogee. Their panicked spending will only cause them to sink faster when the avalanche does hit them at last. Only inspired leadership (as in strategically evolving institutions like Southern New Hampshire University) or truly determined rescue will save them from extinction.

Second, avalanches do not fall uniformly. They follow the contours of the land. And in higher education, those contours are largely shaped by power and money. One of the principal reasons higher education has resisted change for so long is that is deeply connected to – and fiercely protected by – the elite. This is particularly evident in the developing world. African countries top the World Bank’s list of government higher education spending as a proportion of per capita GDP. They also spend disproportionately on higher versus secondary and primary education. As I wrote earlier, Kenya’s presidential candidates recently stumped aggressively about increased higher education spending despite the system still only applying to a few percent of the population. All this is because the fate of higher education institutions directly affects the elite (as alumni and employees) and their children.

Those building disruptive new higher education models would be remiss to underestimate this reality. The avalanche is still building and the clearer the signs of its inevitable arrival, the more nervous elites will wield their influence to reshape the land to protect their interests. As the legislative chaos in India shows, regulatory regimes may become less amenable to innovation before they become more so. Anachronistic and inefficient institutions may continue to provide competition by securing special protections and subsidies. Before planning where to build on the post-avalanche landscape, we and others must read the land carefully.

Power to the People

The authors articulately describe the ways in which higher education is being unbundled and the new imperatives this creates. They also wisely stop short of prognosticating about which models will thrive after the avalanche: the change is too broad and too early. However, there are two elements of their analysis that are worth dwelling on further.

First, for such sweeping change of a multi-trillion dollar industry, the specific innovations and new models they highlight are few, relatively early stage, and/or limited in geography and scope. They caution that their intent was anecdote to confirm trends, not a catalogue. But our own extensive landscaping over the past months confirms this relative dearth of innovation compared to the magnitude of the opportunity and need. The implication is clear: much more experimentation is needed. Unbundling multiplies the number of distinct models that are possible and needed, but there are only a handful of prominent experiments in each segment currently. And, as usual, the developing world is underserved despite its potential: higher education in low and middle-income countries will account for more than three-quarters of students globally and is at least a half a trillion-dollar market.

Second, the five broad models of post-avalanche universities the report outlines will not have equal roles in the market. The authors are right that elite universities will remain. But, by definition, they – and the often equally high-cost niche institutions – will continue to serve a small fragment of the population. Their fate is not the most important or interesting question. Rather it is the various sub-segments of the “mass university” model, which will dominate the market in terms of both enrollment and revenue, that should be watched closely.

We would propose to break the mass model down into along a number of dimensions that are defined by consumer (or in Clayton Christensen’s terms, the jobs that students, their families, and employers want the university to do). These dimensions include:

  1. Intensity of in-person support: All post-avalanche institutions will have some online component. But the market share captured by purely online models over the next 20 years is the pivotal question. This will be determined by what premium consumers are willing to pay for experiences that will continue to uniquely in-person.
  2. Employment Linkages: Universities will also be differentiated by how they respond to consumer desire for greater employment relevance. This will be by both intensity of the linkage (from the nearly hands-off approach of most current US institutions to nearly vocational) and, most importantly, how they produce the practical skills and experience employers clamor for.
  3. Level of Support – Thiel Fellowships are great solutions for some, but not for many. Others will benefit most from – and seek out – institutions that almost resemble “no excuses” charter schools in the structure and support they provide.

There are undoubtedly other dimensions that will become clearer as the pressures build. With Kepler, we will be intensively experimenting within each of these dimensions until we arrive at a model that meets what students and employers need and want and that can be scaled to rapidly reach the millions of young people that cannot access quality post-secondary education in the developing world. That conclusion may look different in each country and, indeed as the authors highlight, each city. We hope many more will join us in this experimentation and avoid being swept away.

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