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Specialization Is The Future of Higher Education

By February 7, 2023No Comments

Ryan Craig, the author of College Disrupted, argues that colleges have taken on a multitude of service offerings outside the core scope of education. Institutions had to provide admissions, research, facilities management, housing, health care, credentialing, food service, and athletic facilities in order to meet the needs of their students.

I could see this after reflecting on my own personal experience of college. The buffets were plentiful, and the housing provisions were never scarce, and yet I left feeling underprepared for the job market from the education I received. 

Most outstanding companies excel at one or two core product offerings. Yes, there are exceptions like Amazon, but they are outliers. Why would universities be any different?

If you try to be good at everything, you’ll end up being great at nothing. 

Imagine the burrito quality from a Mexican restaurant that also files taxes, sells hardware hats, builds a SaaS product, and produces hand-made clothes.

Colleges outsource the creation of dorms and other services to contractors but still have to spend managerial bandwidth and capital to keep the whole ecosystem operating.

This generalized approach permeates traditional colleges even on the micro level. Professors have to conduct lectures, oversee grading, architect the syllabus, and pursue research. Imagine if your gymnastics coach had to train you, was your judge, and had to create the scoring system. 

I’m not attempting to dunk on professors or colleges in general. I’m shining a light on an inefficient and antiquated system.

Specialization Leads To Higher Quality Outputs

The internet is a complex and hyper-specialized web of applications. The most popular browser, made by Google (Chrome), fetches files routed by a company like Cloudflare, that’s served up from an AWS server (Amazon), written on a tech stack like Next.js (Vercel) or React (Facebook), that is all measured and analyzed by companies like Data Dog

It would be a titanic size lift for one company to provide those services to the market. The quality of the internet would suffer, perhaps not even exist, if one organization had to conduct them all. Why is Higher Education any different?

Prior to the internet, there was no workable way to divide up most Higher Education functions, but now you can. One of the core reasons why was that information was scarce. There was a high marginal cost to produce every book and in-person lecture. You couldn’t replicate & distribute as easily as you can with the software on the internet. Once software eats something, it dramatically lowers the cost of production and distribution, which opens up the market to new approaches.

Let’s explore what unbundling the core services of college could look like.

Painting A Picture

A second approach to Higher Education could be digital courses (offered remotely) paired with physical environments and online credentialing. An online program in the 90th percentile can outperform any physical program that’s in the bottom half. The educational material could be centered around teaching students highly demanded skills with an emphasis on the ROI of the education. 

Let me add a caveat – I don’t believe you can do it for every field of study, like law and medicine. The opportunities lie in the domains like design, data science, and software engineering.

In-person TAs could be decoupled from traditional schools and moved to a freelance model, on an as-needed basis for the students.

I imagine it looking like this: 

Top-tier online programs like General Assembly, Bloomtech, and Write of Passage will be the core educational programs. Credentialing will be conducted by a company like Credly or open-source “proof of work” platforms like Github. Freelancing TAs will come directly to you while learning on existing campuses or learning pods in a physical environment with like-minded students.

In a not-too-distant future, a 17-year-old High School senior will be able to choose an online educational program, for a fraction of the cost of current colleges, select a group of like-minded students to be classmates, and then choose the physical environment (dormitory, college townhouse, learning pod, etc.) in which they live during that program. Their GitHub profile, online writing portfolio, and Credly page will be open for potential employers to review. These credentials will provide a higher fidelity picture of their skills as opposed to a diploma.

Imagine a young adult interested in working for a dating app company like Bumble who learns mobile application development, alongside peers who want the same outcome, and who publically writes about evolutionary psychology and dating demographics while in Write of Passage.

Wouldn’t they be a better employment choice for a dating app company than any random student who went through Harvard’s computer science program?

Building The MVP

Let’s get beyond theory and talk MVPs.

I’m building Unbundl.ed, a platform for Higher Education alternatives. It’s an online marketplace where you can attend remote-only courses to learn hard skills that are ROI positive, paired with the physical experience of living on a college campus with like-minded students looking for an alternative route to the job market.

A custom college experience for half the price, a fraction of the time commitment, centered around developing job market skills with open-sourced and third-party credentials.Want a glimpse into what adding more specialization into Higher Education could do for your future? Get a preview at