The case for ‘unbundling’ higher education

The Great Recession and its aftermath have exposed a major mismatch between the skills of many college graduates and the skills employers are seeking. If anything, as technological change marches on, this problem may get worse.

University presidents and trustees cannot afford to be complacent. One compelling suggestion, by Monica Herk, the the Committee for Economic Development’s vice president for education research, is that all institutions of higher learning focus far more on certifying competencies in particular skills that employers demand rather than on simply requiring students to complete a fixed number of classes. This may even lead to an unbundling of courses and certifications, much as the challengers to cable-television providers are now beginning to offer consumers. (Full disclosure: I am a member of CED’s research advisory board).

Key to making this new, potentially more cost-effective educational system work, Ms. Herk points out, is the availability and widespread use of various kinds of assessments – not necessarily all standardized tests — that can certify to employers that individuals have certain competencies.

The Collegiate Learning Assessment, which attempts to measure how much college students have learned from the beginning of their freshman year to sometime during their senior year, is one such tool that some 700 schools are now using. But there is plenty of room in the marketplace for many other types of specialized assessments.

Development of such tools should be, and maybe already are, a high research priority both in academe and in industry. Once some are validated by employers as reliable indicators of future work performance – and, with hope, better than the SAT is of college performance — the education market finally should be disrupted. Employers will demonstrate demand for workers with certified skills, however they are gained, and a highly competitive market among educational institutions of all types will lead to programs that help students of all ages gain those certifications more cost-effectively than is the case now.

Education will never be the same: unbundled, less costly and more effective.