The Forum | Costs

School, Disrupted

May 20, 2015 by Christine Ravold

The sooner we face higher education’s brokenness, the sooner we can fix it.

The Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation agrees, but doesn’t follow UC president Janet Napolitano in arguing that we need to increase state spending to fix higher education. Michael B. Horn of the Christensen Institute says, “public colleges and universities will need to take steps to reinvent their business model or be more creative than simply asking for more money.”

Expensive infrastructure, bad ROI, content-less education, a trillion dollars in student loan debt, and an undereducated, unprepared workforce are eating away at consumer confidence. There are serious concerns about higher education’s sustainability, and the wisdom of continuing to pour taxpayer money into the dusty ivory tower.

The education market is no different than any other market. Disruptive innovations send seismic waves through a market because they are more efficient, more accessible, more effective, or some combination thereof. Disruptors stand to profit from the poor performance of traditional institutions of higher education, and students can rejoice at the affordable alternatives.

Swelling the ranks of educational disruptors are individuals like ASU President Michael Crow, and Purdue President Mitch Daniels, who are making impactful changes at their schools. Intrepid community colleges, or private companies like edX or Coursera (which offer MOOCs in partnership with existing institutions), all make a serious argument for your education dollar. With these disruptors, look for that dollar to go further than it would have in the hands of the old guard.

President Napolitano’s call for more government spending evokes the image of Wall Street’s elite taking a private jet to ask the government for bailout money. Before she asks for more money, she should first look at how she can reduce the costs of her system.

The UC system presents plenty of opportunities for cost cutting. Best Laid Plans, The Unfulfilled Promise of Public Higher Education in California, a 2012 ACTA study found that California’s higher education system faced serious issues such as: facilities utilization, inappropriate spending on athletics, administration, and a shift away from a strong academic core. Without a major overhaul of priorities, the University of California system will continue to face enrollment caps and be unable to fulfill its admirable goal of enrolling the top one-third of all California’s graduating high school students.

To meet this goal, California could take a note from Clayton Christensen, himself, who argued for year-round scheduling as a way to serve more students. Using student-advising software could streamline the course selection process and free up time for advisors. Scheduling class on Fridays may seem disruptive now, but would enable California’s schools to meet its own goals and reduce spending. Focusing on a legitimate core of general education requirements could also reduce wasteful spending on classes with little substance.

California’s desire for greater accessibility need not be expensive. If these changes aren’t adopted, REAL disruptors like MOOCs and online universities, maybe even good for-profit colleges, could take these ideas and run away with them, leaving traditional academe to fall into complete decay.


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