“The End of College as We Know it”

Over the last couple of weeks since I became an “Edevator”, many people have asked me, “Why Edevate, and Why Now?” After spending the last decade being a mentor, adviser, investor, biz-plan judge, and general gadfly, why I am I jumping in with both feet to do a start-up now? The short answer is the timing was right, as well as somewhat fortuitous. Edevate was founded with the singular purpose of bridging the accreditation gap that currently exists in the Open Education community. The news in higher education has been dominated lately by the growth of MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) and their promise to dis-intermediate the existing post-secondary institutional hierarchy. The missing component from this euphoric vision is the lack of a straightforward path from course completion to transferable credit.  If you missed my post on this blog from February, I was commenting on how new approaches to accreditation and competency standards would affect the future of higher education as we know it now. Here’s an excerpt:

“The clear implication is that the higher education models that would be eligible for federal financial aid through the alternate accreditation system wouldn’t have to be colleges at all. They could be any providers of higher education that meet standards of “performance and results.”
If this prediction proves correct, the new accreditation model may well hasten the demise of the for-profit higher-ed business as well as small, regionally accredited colleges that exist on the margin of the post secondary sector. If the vast pool of motivated, but financially challenged students will be able to choose between taking out five figure student loans to attend a mediocre institution, or can cobble together a program of study from the top universities in the world for free, and get an equivalent accreditation which will lead to gainful employment, then the existence of such esteemed places of higher learning as South Harmon Institute of Technology is indeed in doubt.

About the time I was writing that post, a pair of innovative educators and college presidents named Gareth Genner and William Fahey were in the midst of developing a platform that would give the growing number of MOOC users a path to achieving transferable college credit for the courses they take online. On top of that, they were also building a skills database that would let online learners search for courses that would give them the skills and competencies they required for career advancement. (This is something I had been deeply involved with in the corporate market fifteen years ago, as the e-learning company I had founded offered a “skill-gap analysis” tool for Fortune 500 employers. )When Gareth approached me in September about coming on board with the company that by then was known as Edevate, I was immediately intrigued. It offered me the opportunity to continue the mission I was on during the early days of the internet and to take advantage of the tectonic shift in the emergence of free and open educational resources in the last few years. The chance to make a dent in the trillion dollar student debt crisis was an added incentive to join.

As if to underscore my decision,  an article in the New York TImes by Clay Christensen and Michael Horn contained this succinct argument: “But for MOOCs to really fulfill their disruptive potential, they must be built into low-cost programs with certification of skills of value to employers.” For MOOCs and Open Educational Resources to reach the proverbial tipping point, the link between course completion and gainful employment must be strengthened. Currently, we’re still in the early adopter phase – high-growth tech companies such as Google and Amazon are so hungry for highly qualified technical talent that they are quite willing to bypass the traditional recruiting model and siphon off the top performers in Udacity’s or Coursera’s Machine Learning and Python MOOCs. For them, demonstrated mastery of key skills is more important than a piece of paper with a gold seal and Latin scroll on it. For the long tail of other employers, such as the mid-western tool and die maker that needs to hire an assistant comptroller, the job description will continue to include the words “Bachelor’s degree required” for several years to come.  At present there are over 20 million unemployed or under-employed adults in the U.S. who lack the proper credentials to qualify for such entry level, but career-oriented jobs.  That is the market Edevate, and other alternative credentialing initiatives, aims to address.

I have a more personal motivation for undertaking this mission. I currently have five children enrolled in college, and two more who will most likely be headed there in the next few years. The ones that are there now will most likely complete their education the conventional way, by walking across a stage with a rolled up diploma in hand. But by the time my youngest finishes in about ten years time, the concept of a “degree” may seem as quaint as the term “sheepskin” is today.

Stay tuned…