There is real and tangible evidence that a seismic shift which will undermine the legacy system of higher education is taking shape. Case in point: roughly one in five working-age Americans attended college during the last two decades but left without earning a degree or certificate. Yet enrollment at four-year degree granting institutions has been declining since it peaked in 2011, with the most drastic decline occurring in the for-profit sector, where it has dropped by 16% in just the last two years. The recent high-profile failures and investigations of several of the major players in this sector will most likely hasten their decline. These developments are forcing a growing proportion of the 31 million Americans who are seeking to upgrade their skills to look at new alternatives of earning degrees and certifications. Many are turning to MOOCS and similar channels that offer the bite-sized chunks of learning they need to plug the gaps in their resume. What’s more, they are able to achieve this outcome at price points resembling the monthly subscription rates at less than a cell phone bill, rather than being forced to make mortgage-sized monthly loan payments, as they have in the past.
The first initial in the term MOOC, M, stands for Massive, which is synonymous with the term accessible. Yet by this measure, MOOCS have yet to live up to the hyperbole. In a somewhat perverse development, the majority of MOOC students to date might be labelled the “educated elite” – gainfully employed professionals with one or more college degrees. Over two thirds of people who enroll in MOOCs have one or more degrees already and nearly three quarters have full time jobs. Affordability is not the primary motivation for this group of early adopters, quality and variety is. Yet individuals at the other end of the economic spectrum, those with little or no formal education beyond a high school diploma, hourly shift workers who shuttle between two or more part time jobs, by and large have yet to take advantage of the world of free and open educational resources that MOOCs offer. If they have been enrolled in any post secondary programs, more than likely it has been in an academically substandard program that forced them to take out tens of thousands of dollars of loans to pay for. And so it has come to this: The best material goes for free to “dilettantes with degrees”, but the programs of questionable value and highest cost go to the underpaid and uninformed. It’s a bit like Whole Foods giving Kobe beef away to their best customers, while those who shop at the A&P in the strip mall use all their food stamps to buy a pound of pink slime.
To earn the description “disruptive”, a product or service will begin to take root in an under-served, or non-served segment of the market, and then move relentlessly upmarket, eventually displacing the established competitors. We are not there yet, but we must make the effort if education is ever going to be the path to greater prosperity for all.