The Innovator’s Dilemma in Higher Education

Matt Yglesias points me to a a new report on the future of higher education from the Center for American Progress. The report has Clay Christensen, the author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, as its lead author. Not surprisingly, he leans heavily on his own concept of disruptive innovation, which I’ve blogged about in the past. He argues that online learning threatens to undermine the business model of traditional universities as disruptive innovations have done in many other industries:

For decades now [universities] have offered multiple value propositions around knowledge creation (research), knowledge proliferation and learning (teaching), and preparation for life and careers. They have as a result become conflations of the three generic types of business models—solution shops, value-adding process businesses, and facilitated user networks. This has resulted in extraordinarily complex—some might say confused—institutions where there are significant coordinative overhead costs that take resources away from research and teaching.

I’m probably biased since I’m currently employed in the industry under discussion, but this seems wrong-headed. In particular, dividing universities into separate “business models” that are then analyzed for economic efficiency is reductionist and myopic. Obviously, one of the benefits of a college education is that you learn skills and knowledge that raise your subsequent earning potential. But to evaluate colleges based on the efficiency with which they convey particular bits of information to students is rather missing the point.

Many college students study subjects that bear little if any relation to the work they subsequently perform in the labor force. Even students who study a practical subject like computer science or chemical engineering wind up learning a lot of material not directly relevant to their subsequent careers, and they require a lot of on-the-job training when they graduate. Indeed, the software industry is full of people who studied something other than computer science in college, or don’t have college degrees at all.

So a traditional four-year college is a pretty inefficient way to learn career specific information and skills. Yet a college degree does seem to raise a student’s wages, even if he studies a subject unrelated to his subsequent career. And counterintuitively, academically-oriented universities and liberal arts colleges seem to improve their students’ career prospects more than more vocationally-focused community colleges. I don’t think anyone clearly understands why this happens, but this seems like a problem you need to wrestle with if you want to suggest ways to reform higher education. And Christensen doesn’t really do this.

My own tentative theory is that the primary function of an undergraduate education is to allow the student to join a scholarly community, and in the process to soak up the values and attitudes of that community. There are a variety of character traits—intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, self-direction, creativity—that are best learned by being immersed in a community where those traits are cultivated and rewarded. They’re not on the formal curriculum, but they’re implicit in much of what happens on a college campus.

Spending four years at a good college makes you a certain kind of person. A college graduate is more likely to read books in his free time, pay attention to spelling and grammar, know how to recognize and fact-check dubious statements by authority figures, juggle multiple deadlines, and so forth. And for a variety of reasons, people with these character traits tend to be good choices for white-collar jobs.

This kind of cultural transmission is really hard to accomplish via the Internet. An online course can probably teach you facts about history as well as a flesh-and-blood professor could do. But a website won’t exhibit the kind of infectious enthusiasm that turns students into lifelong history buffs. You can certainly learn computer programming from an online university, but it can’t seat you next to a guy who regales you with tales of his internship at Facebook. An online instructor can critique the half-baked paper you wrote at the last minute, but his critical comments won’t carry the same sting as they would if you had to meet him face-to-face.

Of course, there’s a lot of diversity in higher education. This kind of cultural argument may not apply as much to vocational schools that are more focused on teaching specific job skills. Also, older students probably wouldn’t benefit as much from—and probably wouldn’t have time for—four-year immersion in a college environment. Schools that cater to these types of students may face a more direct threat from Internet-based instruction models.

But I see no reason to think that the new Internet-based business models Christensen talks about will move very far “up market.” Above the basic vocational level, at least, an education is not a discrete product like a disk drive or a ton of steel. Much of the value of going to college flows from subtle positive externalities that emerge when you spend four years in close proximity to other people with similar interests, abilities, and values. It won’t be possible to replicate that experience via the Internet any time soon, and so I doubt most traditional 4-year colleges need to worry about the innovator’s dilemma.

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16 Responses to The Innovator’s Dilemma in Higher Education

  1. Jess says:

    I don’t necessarily disagree with any of the reasons you’ve given to consider traditional education’s position secure. However, I’m sure that Christensen could relate similar stories told by traditional integrated steel mills’ management just before the minimills ate their collective lunch. How much of this conventional wisdom will hold if public support for education diminishes, or if the nature of secondary education changes? Many underestimate the extent to which public support for education at all levels has distorted demand and prices. Now that numerous states and municipalities are considering bankruptcy and the like, I don’t think we can assume that support is permanent.

  2. manchild says:

    The more obvious (well, to me as an economist at least) explanation for why a four year degree increases future earnings (and this positive effect is higher at more prestigous colleges) is signalling. Completing a four degree is a signal that you are an intelligent, hard working person — traits that employers are willing to pay for, but are hard to identify. The better the college, the stronger the signal, and the higher future pay is.

  3. Jason says:

    “Above the basic vocational level, at least, an education is not a discrete product like a disk drive or a ton of steel. Much of the value of going to college flows from subtle positive externalities that emerge when you spend four years in close proximity to other people with similar interests, abilities, and values.”

    Beautifully written. I can’t stand it when people assail the US liberal arts degree because it teaches students anything other than how to be a good wage slave.

  4. Bob McHenry says:

    You say “There are a variety of character traits—intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, self-direction, creativity—that are best learned by being immersed in a community where those traits are cultivated and rewarded.”

    True enough. But prior to immersion, it is well to have learned to read, write, and cipher to the rule of three. That, increasingly, is what does not happen.

  5. spomore8 says:

    On this theme, I once quoted an old German professor, “Men polish each other as diamonds do.” The benefit of a college education is that it will invariably put you into contact with people who will challenge you intellectually. That in turn will make you more intellectually sound. The content of teaching — read this book, read that one, learn this series of problems, learn this many words — can indeed be done at home and online. But what you will not have is the challenge that your peers and your professors can and should provide (to say nothing of the recognition and praise that is part of the process.) And, just as you will improve yourself to raise your standing in their eyes, so will they. The only difference is that the bar is not set on how many baskets, or how many jokes you can tell, or how much money you have. The goal is clear, concise, oral and written communication, as well as clear, direct, and successful problem solving, as well as command of whatever your chosen field of specialty. The hard work, discipline, and focus that those will require, once cultivated, are what makes college graduates superior earners. Nothing besides.

    At the same time, I have to say, from a practical point of view, the outlay today is not worth the reward, if we are talking elite schools. Young people shouldn’t have to come up a quarter of a million dollars in order to get a degree at an elite school. Therefore, while the actual skills one acquires in a college education are easy to define, it must be said that they can be acquired elsewhere, in a competent small business or in the armed services or by the example of a child’s parents. No amount of self-promotion of academia can carry general weight when the price tag attached puts academia beyond the scope of many young people in this country.

  6. Clarke Foster says:

    $40,000 (or more) seems like an awful lot just to instill intellectual curiosity and the desire to fact check. Perhaps combining the pure knowledge-dump of an internet education with something like a half year program on academic skills is the most efficacious way to get the best of both worlds.

  7. Mark says:

    Thanks for the excellent rebuttal of the conservative quest to kill higher education. If college has a primary goal of increasing salaries of grads, then those persons with such a goal should go to business school. There is a need for thinking, logical, educated people in our world.

  8. I believe that Bryan Caplan’s signaling model of education explains a lot more. Obviously its not JUST signaling, but I don’t think you can explain higher education without signaling.

  9. Diogo says:

    Well, there is something beyond what the student “gets” from college that is not about learning or intellectual curiosity. Sure, the interactions and the climate at universities allow for more learning than just online classes would.

    But there is something a lot more basic at play here, too. Social networks. Colleges are not just about what you know and what your learn, but who you know. Social networks have a profound impact on stratification. In most disciplines that don’t involve heavy equipment and labs, the instruction received at a small “directional” state university is not really different from the one received at an ivy league place. What is irreplaceable are the social connections.

  10. Paul says:

    I think two phrases from this post, albeit quoted mildly out of context, sum up why one strain of conservatism in America seems to hate academia so much: “Spending four years at a good college makes you a certain kind of person” because you “soak up the values and attitudes of that community”. Liberal colleges with their liberal professors will take your kids and turn them into liberals! The problem is that to a certain extant this is true. Going to college will make your kids more likely to believe evolution, and less likely to believe Glenn Beck.

  11. John D. says:

    I’m a retired community-college English teacher who still teaches one class to keep my hand in. Unlike many teachers at that level, I have a Ph.D. in my discipline. I pretty much agree with the gist of the post, particularly in light of five years in which I taught an online course, a survey of world literature. What I could and did say in a conventional classroom when we read “The Inferno” was considerably more than I could do in the cut-and-dried online format that I was dealing with. And the online students were isolated; there was no cross-pollinization: a student asks a questions that gets others to do so and elicits more from the instructor than anyone might have thought.

    But I also have an uneasiness with the post. Not all students go to a “good college.” I think now at least 50% of undergraduates attend a community college before going on to an upper-level institution that is not always stellar. I think that for these students, it is even more important that they be shown the basics of true humanistic education, given the vocational bent of community colleges generally. Many of my students have been the bottom half of their high school graduating class and are from homes where their parents are uneducated and where education has not been valued though now seen vaguely as ticket to some kind of job. If I say, as I usually do, “what about an education for yourself, not for your employer,” I get puzzled looks. My cue to explain that it should be more than job training.

  12. Jeff says:

    There’s no question that college has a socializing effect on students; as a professor, I can easily see how they change even from freshman to junior year. The problem with justifications based on “character” and “values,” though, is that it raises the question of why colleges should be selective. Why aren’t “intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, self-direction, creativity” equally if not more valuable traits for less intellectually gifted students? Why should high scores on tests taken at age 17, or even superior performance in high school, have anything to do with whether you get a shot at “immers[ion] in a community where those traits are cultivated and rewarded”? Sure, it’s easier for the college if you come in already having demonstrated some measure of the traits in question; they’ll have an easier time helping high performers improve their curiosity, self-direction, critical thinking, etc. than they would trying to jump-start these qualities in low performers. But who cares if it’s easier for them? In a democratic society, should people be denied access to goods that others receive, and from which they might benefit as much as more than those others, just because they didn’t emerge from childhood able to demonstrate that they somehow deserved them?

  13. The values-transmission hypothesis is not a new one. It is likely to give us part of the picture. Unfortunately, at least at my current (way-WAY-better-than-average-but-decidedly-non-great) institution, I have doubts about what values are being transmitted, if any. It’s been turned into a big resort, basically. There is every amusement and distraction a 19-year-old could possibly want, and you basically have to try hard to get anything less than a ‘B’ in many classes. Rather than raising students up, the university has been dragged down. It’s not that there aren’t smart students here, for there are. It’s rather that the overall atmosphere seems decidedly non-intellectual, incurious, and high-schoolish.

  14. Applied Linear Statistical Models says:

    I agree with the thrust of this article. However, I can’t resist pointing out that one of the first things a student learns in college these days is to avoid gender-specific language that has the potential to alienate more than 50% of the population. In this otherwise convincing article, Mr. Lee would be well advised to follow suit.

  15. Dooglio says:

    I definitely benefited from my education in ways that are above and beyond my vocation. And I can be one more to back up your claim about software engineers–myself being one of them who got a degree in Linguistics, not Computer Science.

    However, I will say my employers care more about experience than they do about that piece of paper I carry. Yes, it gets one in the door, but today a college degree carries the same prestige that a high school diploma carried in the 50’s–in other words, basic entry requirements. I think you are not factoring in the “degree inflation” caused by massive subsidies by government–federal and state. Take the state subsidies out and I think we’d get a less distorted picture. The free market has not been able to work effectively in education.

  16. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Excellent post. I entirely agree with you as an Educationist.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

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