The Problem with Unbundling College

An interesting discussion in higher education policy today has to do with “unbundling” college. Like music, so proponents of the idea argue, we will soon see a world in which people receive higher education based on individual needs and desires. There’s no need to show up at the University of Maryland, after all, if you can just download all the courses you need to get a BA from colleges around the country.

College might become an on-demand exercise that has little to do with specific institutions. This is a popular idea, but is it a realistic assessment of what’s going on? No, this is bullshit, writes Derek Newton at the Atlantic

It’s a fantasy that higher education is careening toward an unbundled future of consumer choice, lower prices, and efficiency. Those making such predictions are peddling flawed analogies, while the technology they rely on is flawed. They just don’t understand the economics of higher education.

Higher-education consumers—students and parents—behave exactly the opposite: They shop for schools, not for professors. The consumer choice is for the bundler—the brand, the label, university—and not the individual course content. Consumers buy Stanford or Princeton in a way no one ever bought EMI or Universal. College data underlines this reality. For example, the 2012 UCLAannual survey of incoming college freshmen found that nearly two-thirds said “a very good academic reputation” was “very important” in their decision on which college to attend.

It’s an interesting take, but he’s overstating his case. Higher education will be unbundled, it just won’t matter for the way most of us think of college. Schools like Princeton or Pomona or the University of Missouri will remain more or less the same. It’s the schools that serve working people that will end.

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College, as we know it (or as we know it) will not be unbundled (Newton is entirely correct about how this works). The upper-middle class in this country buys college in bundled form, and pretty much always has. You do not go to college specifically for skills development; you go to college for the college. The bundle, the whole experience, is the reason to go.

This is the problem with so much of this unbundling discussion. Proponents make it sound like technological changes will “revolutionize” education. As Jeff Selingo, a former editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote once , technology will give “students more options to take classes outside of their home institution, accelerating the pace to completing a degree, or serving as a supplement to a face-to-face course.”

Not really. We will not see college students in general “take classes outside of their home institution, accelerating the pace to completing a degree, or serving as a supplement to a face-to-face course.” What this means is that in the future poor people won’t have any chance go to college, because we’re not devoting the public resources necessary to make that happen.

It’s not about the American college system at all; it’s just about the colleges that the relatively poor attend.

In truth, unbundling isn’t about technology; it’s about resource priorities. It’s not that people are seeking out online education because the technology is so magical and wonderful that everyone flocks to it. No, it’s because since 1980, inflation- adjusted tuition at public colleges has more than tripled. People are seeking out online education because the United States increasingly fails to makes real college affordable to working people.

The truth is that unbundled training is nothing new. This sort of thing practical, affordable (if still kind of overpriced) is the normal way for poor people to make more money in their jobs. That’s the story of apprenticeships in shoe making or plumbing. That’s historically how hairdressers and stonemasons found training. What changed in the 20th century was that we decided that it might be good for society if people from normal backgrounds could go to college.

It might be fine to return to the old way of doing things, but I’d be much more comfortable about all of this if we could acknowledge what this was about, instead of pretending that technology was going to change college. It won’t; unbundling just means that college for the working class is going to disappear.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer