How To Create A Custom College-like Alternative System
College is broken.
Hot take, I know.
The recent passing of Biden’s student loan forgiveness legislation has brought the issue of higher education to the front and center of public discourse.
Everyone can agree and identify the problem, and many people have been talking about solving it for decades, but almost everyone has differing opinions on solutions. One facet everyone can generally agree on is that technology will play some part in the answer.
Which technologies and implemented and how they are implemented is a hotly debated topic.
Below I’m going to break down the current college model and make the argument that it is Blockbuster, and a combination of Netflix and Airbnb could be the solution.
The Blockbuster Analogy
Modern-day colleges are like Blockbuster. They were built in an analog world where videos (educational content), needed physical stores (campuses), and curriculum selection (selection of movies) all needed to be centralized and physical. Colleges building more rock climbing walls to entice more applications is akin to Blockbuster putting candy aisles in the stores.
They ship a one-size-fits-all offering of higher education that allows little to no flexibility with the concepts of majors/minors, credit hours, grading systems, and on.
But software is eating the world. Anything it can, it will eat. Once physical goods and services are transformed into digital ones it breaks the bonds of scarcity. The Higher Education industry will be no different.
Let me be clear; these blind spots in business models are not because college presidents, administrators, and professors are dumb. Or check out, or that they don’t care about their students.
“It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it.”
It’s because they are operating in an old paradigm. Most of the time, you are the worst person to give yourself a haircut. You need outside perspectives. Were the Blockbuster executives not talented? No. They were being heavily compensated inside of a system that reinforces itself. They can’t see the cracks in the foundations, or that the immovability of their Ivy Towers is now liabilities, not assets.
In order to fix higher education, you have to creatively destroy it, or at least attempt to. You don’t need to build another Blockbuster, you need to invent a combination of Netflix + Airbnb.
Caveat: I’m not in the “Burn It All Down” camp
Let me be very clear. I’m not in the “burn it all down camp”. I believe the current accreditation process for law degrees, medical degrees, and STEM programs shouldn’t be disrupted. That will cause more harm than good.
I don’t want my neurosurgeons to have their degree from a Brain Science™ YouTube channel. I don’t want my lawyers to think watching Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad qualifies them to be trial lawyers.
Nor do I want 90% of the current institutions to go bankrupt. What I’m proposing is an alternative pathway. Right now, arguably, there’s one monopolistic path into the middle class or knowledge work-based workforce, and that’s college.
That path is analog and ossified.
I’m laying out path #2. A second door into upward mobility.
All of the puzzle pieces of creating that new path exists, let me explain how a business can connect them all into a new full-fledged picture of opportunity.
How To Unbundle Education (Netflix + Airbnb)
Unbundl.ed is an attempt to provide a free market solution to higher education. Here’s the catch, I’m not going to build another college. Or another online coding Bootcamp. Or a Data Analytics certification program like Google. I’m creating an online marketplace to aggregate all of these existing alternative educational programs. Paired with physical offerings like housing, fitness centers, and rec centers – all ala-carte from the existing colleges.
“The only way to make money is bundling and unbundling.”
– Jim Barksdale
This way, the students who know which field they want to get into, and don’t want to take four years to be ready for the job market have that IRL college experience.
Think Airbnb, where buyers and sellers of specific services meet. But in addition to housing (excess dorm rooms and townhouses on campus), it will also offer remote-only, Bootcamp-like courses that are centered around in-demand modern-day job skills (backend development, data science, full stack web development, etc.).
Then on the prospective student side, you create a network of people who want a lower cost, faster, and more skills-based path to the middle class. Core offerings are housing, a campus, and skills-based higher education.
Unbundle the standard University offering, then bundle it on the other side at a more affordable and reasonable price, with a LOT more optionality. The opposite of a one size fits all model. Let’s say you finish your Data Science program at Bloomtech and get hired for a remote job, but still want to live with your friends you are doomed with, in the same college town.
You can do that, easily. You can literally stay in that environment until you’re 22, but instead of accruing debt you’ll be making at least $50,000, all the while continuing to make deep friendships.
Hell, let’s say that after two years of being in the workforce, the student wants a traditional four-year liberal arts degree…they can go get it! But now they have more money to do so. Or they can become a part-time student and take the EXACT classes they want. No more forcing yourself to write an essay on Dante’s Inferno when you don’t give a shit about it.
Your major or area of study is now independent of the physical location. Want to live in Miami for the weather but not have to go to The U of Miami? Done. You can have that custom college experience.
The end result? Students get more choice and power, leading to lower prices and higher quality. FORCE the service providers, mainly the universities, to meet the actual needs of the students at a fair market rate. Building more rock climbing facilities and not offering job market-relevant training at the cost of higher tuition is insulting.
Root Issues: “One Size Fits All” & Factory Style Infrastructure
A lot of the issues of the current college system stem from one-size-all non-specialization-based approaches to business. They build factories to pump out students like Ford build factories to pump out uniform Model-Ts.
Most of the infrastructure, pedagogy, curriculum, and systems (majors/minors), were made almost a hundred years ago. That system perpetuated itself, then ossified, and can’t retool itself.
It’s the opposite of nimble. They’ve probably heard of the word pivot, but don’t have any clue on how to do it. Furthermore, I don’t think they can by design.
Due to the large overhead and infrastructure Colleges HAVE to fill these functions, hence can’t provide high-quality services elsewhere (like career placement, job application guidance, and in-demand skills training):
- Facilities management
- Health care
- Athletic facilities
Put in another way, a Mexican restaurant HAS to:
- File taxes
- Sell hardware hats
- Make a SaaS product
- Product hand-made clothes
- Have a masseuse on staff
It will surely make the shittiest burritos.
Specialization is how we get such abundance in an economy. Eventually, the collegiate system will be broken down into specific product offerings (unbundled) and then bundled (customized to each student) on the other side.
The business I’m building; Unbundl.ed is an attempt to do this with a specific niche first: coding boot camps paired with physical campuses.
Addressing Common Objections
This vision is radical, I get it. And I’ll say it again; I’m not in the “burn it all down camp”. What I’m advocating for is a second path to the middle class and to knowledge work writ large.
Right now part of the problem is that there’s one path. A path that is typically four years long, riddled with courses and credit hours you have no interest in (that you don’t actually retain the knowledge from), and that is perpetuated by predatory loans (unforgivable student debt).
I get that this won’t be for everyone. Nor do I want it to be. All I’m trying to build is another way.
That being said, there are plenty of legitimate critiques and objections that have arisen as I refined this vision. I’ve compiled and responded to the most common ones below.
On Financial Aid
Objection: “How will people pay for this? Aren’t you creating a system that will further income inequality? What about the students from low-income households? Sounds like this new marketplace won’t and can’t offer the standard college loans.”
Response: You’re absolutely right. Most of these new alternative programs like Google’s Certifications and Bloomtech can’t get access to subsidized student loans – because they can’t pass the title IV accreditation process. My argument is that this is a beautiful thing. The standard path perpetuates a financial agreement that has no clear ROI and locks you into debt you can’t default on. It’s arguably a predatory model.
An alternative model will align the incentives of the student and school. Not only will this reduce the risk for the student, but it will level up the quality of the school.
Let me lay it out for you.
The course material i.e. the skills training will all utilize zero-down financing models like Income Share Agreements. This way all the risk of the five-figure product isn’t 100% dumped onto an 18-year-old. I personally used an ISA with Meratas in order to attend my full-stack web development course at Bloomtech.
In regards to housing + living expenses, either students pay out of pocket OR they leverage and utilize existing grants for those expenses. This part may be tricky, but it’s doable. There is so much money and generosity in the current system. People WANT to help others level up their knowledge in order to achieve a better life. It’s just a matter of connecting the student to the capital.
Furthermore, I’m hoping that scholarships will be available to these students through the existing infrastructure. I don’t see why public programs couldn’t grant housing stipends to a deserving student that chooses to attend an accelerated program instead of a four-year-long commitment.
On Zoom University
Objection: “Some learning is lost on Zoom! You’ll never be able to give students a proper education and the support they need over conference calls.”
Response: First and foremost I took an entire 9-month computer science program over zoom. It doubled my income and directly resulted in me working for one of the fastest growing startups in tech. So it’s quite possible to learn in-demand skills that way. Of course, it’s harder. But over 3000 students have done it this way via Bloomtech alone.
However, I am in agreement with you, something is missing without the physical environment. That’s why a physical environment, and related services, just like a traditional college, will be core services of the Unbundl.ed marketplace.
As a result of less overhead, and not having to subsidize infrastructures like rock climbing walls and lazy rivers, you can hire in-person TAs to help the students integrate the knowledge they are learning remotely. Thus providing more value to the students + higher value with the best teachers.
On Personal Growth
Objection: “My daughter went to a Christian School for four years and greatly flourished. I saw it in her confidence, her openness, and conscientiousness.”
Response: I’m not denying she did, and that’s awesome. But we can still have our cake and eat it too. The marketplace will allow prospective students to not only take the highest quality remote programs but also live and connect with fellow students. There are plenty of Universities out there that have excess capacity at their facilities, we just need to get them on our marketplace.
I also want to push back on the assumption that ALL students grow as much as his daughter did; she’s probably the minority. There are many students who choose to wreck their guts with processed foods, their minds with poor sleep, and their emotions with alcohol. Ask me how I know.
The average campus environment is NOT primed for the personal development of our young people. Binge drinking is rampant. You have 18-year-olds learning and modeling nutrition, dating, and socializing from “adults” who are still 4 years away from fully developed frontal lobes (21-year-olds). Sleep deprivation is worn like a badge of honor. Cramming is the norm. And a lot of schools are notorious for suicides occurring every year.
On Exposure To New Ideas & Impactful Teachers
Objection: “During college, I got exposed to an amazing Philosophy professor I otherwise wouldn’t have met. His ideas and his teachings were invaluable, I still talk to him to this day. I wouldn’t have gotten that unless college forced me to take his class that was outside of my major”.
Response: That’s amazing, but you can still be exposed to his ideas without having to pay $70,000 and take all those other irrelevant classes while doing so. It’s called the internet. I’m serious. If you’re a genuinely intellectually curious person, that loved learning ideas that were outside of your major and career path, you’ll love the internet the more you explore it. Again, these colleges were built (and still run on) systems when information was scarce during a time when the only medium for delivering information was books – things have changed if you haven’t noticed.
Furthermore, ages 18-22 sometimes isn’t the prime time to be intellectually curious. It’s insane to me to think that only during that window will you need to be exposed to new ideas, and those ideas have to come from a college professor.
A decade after graduating college I spend my time not watching Netflix, but reading books and listening to podcasts on geopolitics, history, computer science, evolutionary psychology, writing, inventions, venture capital, poker, philosophy, science fiction, financial markets, travel, macroeconomics, and countless other topics.
My eagerness and exposure to new ideas are 10,000x what it was in college. I didn’t need to be forced by some administrative policy to take classes I had no interest in at the time to listen to a teacher I didn’t give a shit about. I now do that on my own thanks to the abundance of the internet.
More importantly, education is about knowledge RETENTION, not information exposure. Yeah, your liberal arts colleges expose your students to the Humanities, The Enlightenment, and all kinds of worthwhile ideals, but did it actually change your thinking and belief systems? Most likely not – that only comes from internal desire; which you can’t force onto students, it’s cultivated from within when the time is right.
Anything Software Can Replace Or Automate; it will
Universities are trying to plug digital technologies into analog foundations and business models. They are Blockbuster. No amount of “candy aisles” (adding Rock Climbing facilities) will replace the fact that they have hard fixed costs and ossified widely accepted processes (SAT & ACT) they can’t break out of.
The problem doesn’t arise from malicious administrators or checked-out professors. It’s a result of software eating the world. Anything that software can eat, it will eat.
Once software automates or replaces a once fixed cost (real estate, marketing, organizing functions) the incumbent business will eventually fail. There are countless examples of this happening to other industries: the movie industry (VHS tapes) and photography (Kodak) to name a few.
Why The Current System Can’t Change Itself
Change to the Higher Educational System will come from the outside not from within it. The Game Theory dictates this.
All of the 6,000 Title IV Accredited institutions are all locked in with their current acceptance process: Standardized Tests (ACT or SAT) + GPAs.
They’re all stuck with it. Human beings are motivated by incentives, period. And there are no incentives for one single college to shift to a new filtering process. It makes it harder for that college to attract the students who’ve already put hundreds of hours into playing the GPA & SAT games. It would take a collective agreement of thousands of individual schools that all compete with each out to agree to shift at the same time. It will never happen.
A new approach to Higher Education, from outside the system, will create a new path, a second one different than the monopolistic one that exists.
I believe this college marketplace; Unbundled is a feasible strategy for building out a second path to the job market for our young people.
I welcome feedback and new ideas to this discussion. Feel free to connect and interact with me on Twitter or LinkedIn to start an open dialogue: