Will Higher Education Be the Next Industry to Get Unbundled?

An article on forbes.com talks about about “the next assault on the Ivory Tower.” What does it see that assault as being? The unbundling of the college degree.

It looks to other industries as earlier examples of unbundling: music CDs by iTunes, airline tickets and the recent unbundling of cable TV packages. The article contends that “employers don’t appear to be searching for degree alternatives” but rather at ways to unbundle the components (courses) into the “discrete skills and competencies most predictive of success in the workplace.”  For one thing, this would mean an end to the general education requirements required for a degree.

It was only three years ago when all the talk was that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) were going to disrupt degrees and colleges. That didn’t happen, although the MOOC movement certainly set a number of things into motion that may ultimately lead to degrees being unbundled.

The article’s author is Ryan Craig, managing director at University Ventures, which is described as a private equity fund focused on innovation from within higher education. He is the author of College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education. One of his premises is that the “unprecedented data sharing and transparency between higher ed and labor markets” will lead the way.

I am not so sure that there is this sharing occurring. It may be that it is happening, but it’s not in my purview. If universities and employers are sharing this data and they are doing so in order to determine what courses lead to the employer outcomes that they are looking for, then unbundling would occur.

I can see benefits for students – lower tuition costs, shorter periods of study leading to jobs – and benefits for some employers – customized programs for their industry. But what are the advantages for the colleges?

Ryan Craig refers to LinkedIn as a “competency management platform.” That’s a new term to me. Apparently, linking uploaded resumes, transcripts and competencies and mapping those competencies to specific jobs or careers will allow matches for employers and job applicants.

Is this the end of the university? Craig says, no. He still sees it as the locus of educational content and talent and the places that will produce the coursework. The university survives; the degree does not.

Will higher education refocus on the bottom line returns that probably matter most to a majority of students – employment and wages? Just as it was predicted that MOOCs wouldn’t impact the elite universities as much as it would the smaller schools. Those elites are the ones whose reputation still relies heavily on the “four Rs” – rankings, research, real estate, and rah! (i.e. sports and other aspects of campus life). Don’t those elite students also want jobs and great wages? Of course, but their path has been and will continue to be a different one from the majority of college students.

The ABD Club

ABD stands for “all but dissertation,” which is a description of a student who has finished coursework and perhaps also passed comprehensive exams, but has yet to complete and defend the doctoral thesis. It is a kind of club, though you don’t really see people putting the ABD bumper sticker on their car.

Last weekend, I wrote about “The Art of Procrastination” and rethinking what is and isn’t true procrastination. That led me to think about why so many doctoral students, myself included, give up on that degree.

I had read an article by Rebecca Schuman  about the Ph.D. Completion Project. It estimates the ten-year completion rate for the degree. For STEM disciplines, it is 55–64 percent. It’s 56 percent in the social sciences, and 49 percent in the humanities.  So about half of those in these doctoral programs don’t make it after a decade of working at it. Some of those people don’t even make it all the way to the dissertation phase. I am in that particular club.

David D. Perlmutter wrote a series that focused on the “getting it done” aspects of the document accepts that there may be factors beyond your control but pushes the completion agenda.

The Ph.D. Completion Project graphs start leveling out around year 8 and since the dissertation begins in Year 3 or 4), we can assume a lot of these folks are into the dissertation phase before they bail out.


ABDs live in an odd parallel universe of academia. They clock up years of research and tuition bills, but come away with nothing to show but three scarlet letters they can wear.

Some of them can get teaching jobs at 2-year colleges, or with some impressive job experiences or big publications might get a position (non-tenure, probably) at a 4-year school.  It has been suggested that a new kind of degree between an M.A. and a doctorate might be offered — an “MFA” in other areas.

I attended a party for a friend last summer who has finally completed the dissertation and degree. He is in his late 50s. He started late and plowed ahead because he enjoyed learning. He is an adjunct professor at a nearby university and I doubt that he expects to pick up a full-time position at this stage of his life. That’s a good place to be because the odds are against him.

I have written about procrastination on another blog of mine, and it’s not that I don’t get things done. Part of my problem has always been putting too many things on that never-ending “To Do” list.

The things undone on those lists are a constant cause of stress and a sense of failure. I lay a lot of guilt on myself about all the things I do to avoid doing the things I really need to do – like making and drinking a few cups of coffee while staring at the sky on the deck, taking the dirty laundry downstairs, writing a blog post, watering the plants, taking a walk.

But of late, I have been rethinking procrastination, and I’m not the only one doing that. Scientists who study procrastination find that most of us are lousy at weighing costs and benefits across time. For example, we might avoid doctor and dental appointments, exercising, dieting, or saving for retirement. We know they have benefits, but the rewards seem distant and we may even question those benefits. What if that money is not there when I retire? What if we don’t live long enough to retire?

Most of us prefer to do things with short-term and small rewards. The benefits of that coffee break, watering the plants or writing a blog post may be small or even dubious, but we see an immediate result. I like the coffee and it might give me some energy. The plants need me to survive, and I enjoy looking at them, I like completing things, even if it’s a post that take me only an hour to finish. It is finished. Checking things off the To Do list. gives me a wonderful feeling

Friends tell me I am very productive. And some articles I have read say that productive people sometimes are very poor at distinguishing between reasonable delay and true procrastination.
Reasonable delay can be useful. I will respond to the request for information from my colleague tomorrow after I talk to someone about it and gather more information. But true procrastination – not responding to the colleague for no reason, or watering the plants and making coffee just to avoid the inevitable – is self-defeating.

It is a way to rethink blaming yourself. I don’t mean that you’re off the hook. I’m not giving myself a free pass on procrastinating in all cases. I’m rethinking the why of the delay.

Do I regret not finishing that doctorate? the time when it would have benefited me is now past, so I don’t regret it now. I found alternate paths to what I wanted to do and I really did not enjoy the work required to get the degree.

Now if I can just find out when the next meeting of the ABD Club occurs. I have a lot to talk about with that crew.