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Unbundling Higher Education
To What End?

Recently, Arizona State University announced that it would partner with edX, the online platform for MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) founded by MIT and Harvard, to offer an online freshman year of college that students could take for free without admissions and apply for credit after the fact.

The announcement is just another example of efforts in recent years to rethink the bachelor’s degree from a bundle of services offered by one college over four years (usually in a physical place) to an “unbundled product” that is consumed when and where students want it and is provided by various educational entities. In the case of the ASU-edX partnership, students would transfer their credits to Arizona State or another university to finish their degree. In other words, the freshman year would be unbundled from the rest of the degree.

The “disrupters” of higher education, led mostly by Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs, are often the biggest advocates of unbundling because they want to take just a small slice—and the most lucrative for them—of the bundled experience. They like to compare higher education to other industries that have been unbundled by technology in the last decade, such as music (consumers buy singles instead of albums) or the cable-television industry (viewers can watch individual shows online instead of buying a suite of channels).

Supporters of unbundled higher education argue that disaggregating the degree is not only what today’s students demand, but that it would end up being less expensive because students would only pay for what they need. Many questions remain, however, about whether they’re right on either front.

Let’s take student demand. It’s true that today’s students need more flexible pathways to graduation than most colleges offer given that one-third of undergraduates transfer before they earn a degree and only around half of students finish a bachelor’s degree within five years.

But the idea of cobbling together a degree from multiple providers, in multiple ways might be just too much for many students to coordinate. For one, a bachelor’s degree is more than just a random collection of 120 credit hours. There is a curriculum behind it, and most students are not savvy enough to build their own degree.

And when it’s done for them, there seems to be little interest. “We need to take baby steps first,” Chip Paucek, CEO and co-founder of 2U, the online course provider, said on a panel I moderated Monday at the Challenge Cup Festival in Washington, DC.

As evidence, Paucek mentioned 2U’s failed pilot from a few years ago when it partnered with several elite colleges and universities to offer a semester of their courses online. No one seemed to want it. He thinks students might be more interested in unbundling the delivery system, so that they can more easily mix-and-match how they take the course between in-person and online classes.

And then there’s the price question. I’m not persuaded that an unbundled degree would be cheaper. Right now, campuses are full of cross-subsidies between their various functions. Large English courses support small chemistry labs, for instance. Student fees support a plethora of activities. If you unbundle the degree, fewer students will want those activities and thus pay for them, but campuses will still need to provide them for those students who do need them.

I’ve noticed this phenomenon recently in Washington, DC, with fitness clubs. The fitness club has been unbundled as new providers are offering bike spinning classes, gyms with only weights, and boot-camp classes. But each of these providers is charging almost as much for that single activity as what a half month might cost at a traditional gym. They have fewer members supporting what ends up still being an expensive, people-intensive and equipment-heavy business. The same is true of higher education.

Before we unbundle the degree, we need more evidence that students demand it and that it will be less expensive for them.

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