Bursting Higher Ed's Bubble
Recap and opinions of Dan Rosensweig, President & CEO of Chegg, at the ASU+GSV Summit 2020
Four years after his first appearance at the ASU+GSV Summit in 2016, Dan Rosensweig, President & CEO of Chegg, returned to center stage (or “center screen”) to discuss his key takeaway from four years prior: Higher Education is a bubble. Today, he argued, that bubble has burst as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What is interesting about Rosensweig’s perspective is that, although coronavirus may have burst this bubble, Higher Ed institutions caused it. This is by no means insinuating that COVID would not have had an immense shock on the entire Higher Ed system had colleges and educators acted differently in the last decade, but rather that the result of and response to this shock may have been vastly different had institutions altered their approach to educating an ever evolving student population.
So what mistakes have Higher Ed institutions made to create such a bubble? From my perspective, Rosensweig touched on three themes in response to this…
Higher Ed has not been student-centered historically
For the past decade, many Higher Ed institutions have failed to put their students first. They have under appreciated students’ cries for a more flexible education at lower prices and have refused countless opportunities to tailor their pedagogical approaches to an ever changing demographic. Rosensweig notes that the current COVID-19 pandemic is a key example, saying:
“Colleges, whether they’re designated as not-for-profit or designated as for-profit, are businesses. Many of them chose the economics over necessarily the safety of the students.”
As a result of this business-focused approach, the Chegg CEO sites that 43% of those who enter the Higher Ed system drop out — clearly there is a systemic issue here.
In the same period that institutions have failed to focus on students’ needs, student expectations have skyrocketed as result of the high-tech world they have been raised in. Rosensweig points out that the year most students in the college graduation Class of 2020 were born was the same year that Google was conceived, meaning most every student grew up in a world where they could find the answer to any question online immediately. Today’s students have been conditioned by the likes of Amazon’s same-day shipping, Netflix’s instant entertainment access, and Spotify’s personalized playlists. With Gen Z’s heightened expectations, startups have learned they must ruthlessly employ a customers-centric product strategy through Minimum Viable Products and Agile Methodologies in order to survive. However, schools have failed to adapt this mindset, leading to less satisfied “customers” on college campuses and a less educated generation.
Higher Ed has failed to innovate at the pace of an ever changing world
Along with refusing to put students first, most institutions have failed to keep up with the rapid pace of innovation in the private sector — in the same time that Facebook launched, iterated on its product thousands of time, acquired Instagram, and grew it’s user base from a couple of Harvard students to 2.7 billion, university classrooms have largely been left unchanged. Though this is not a trend that has only recently evolved, the exponential technological growth predicted by Moore’s Law in recent years has made the stagnation in educational innovation even more apparent. Higher Ed has broadly failed to invest enough time, energy, and money into technology to personalize learning and create flexibility for students. In a data-driven world where there is an app for everything, this should not be acceptable. Rosensweig points out that based on Chegg’s data, 75% of all students would prefer to return to a hybrid system with a mix of online and in person classes after the pandemic, but he questions if schools will offer such flexibility based on this lack of previous innovation.
Rosensweig makes an interesting point as to one reason for the lack of innovation: incentives. Administrators, professors, and other facility alike have little to no incentive to innovate. In fact, it may pose more downside risk for them than upside since they are incentivized to conduct research and ensure that students continue to enroll, not necessarily to help students prepare for a productive life. This is not to say that no incredibly innovative and thoughtful professors and administrator exist, but unfortunately they are the exception and not the rule. Instead, those who do have incentives to innovate are the students and their future employers — it is important to both that students graduate wth tangible skills. For this reason, students and the private sector may need to be the ones to force the issue of demanding innovation on campuses.
Beyond incentives, other barriers to technological innovation include a lack of resources (both financial and human capital) and lack of awareness that technology can solve certain problems. We have already seen private companies step in to fill these gaps, and Rosensweig is bullish on public-private partnerships for this reason. Schools may not have the expertise, time, or money to develop their own software, but the private sector does. These partnerships will allow schools to focus on how to best implement certain solutions to better educate students rather wasting resources on creating them.
The Higher Ed path “from learning to earning” has been stagnant
Finally, Rosensweig points out that, despite attempts by bootcamps and alternative learning programs, the norm is still largely for students to sit through four years of college, often taking on the burden of student debt, whether or not this path will help them on their professional trajectory. In an increasingly accelerating economy, the Chegg CEO argued that the “path from learning to earning” should also be accelerating, citing two reasons to support this claim.
The first is that, if students are attending college mostly for the career opportunities that it opens (which surveys indicate is the case), education should teach specific skills to prepare students for their careers. Rosensweig gave a personal anecdote, saying that he does not hire employees at Chegg based on what school they went to but instead what skills they have. In fact, 40% of Chegg’s workforce went to college outside of the United States to schools he had never heard of. Much of the Higher Ed system is not focused on teaching such skills. Cloud companies like Amazon, Google, and Salesforce are even introducing their own curriculums for their employees, showing that students are often not learning the skills needed for their jobs in prior education.
The second reason for the need of accelerated “learning to earning” is the increasing college price tag and skyrocketing student debt. When asked what colleges have failed to realize about students, Rosensweig responded:
“Education has under appreciated who the student is and that college debt is a lifetime anchor for people.”
The decision of attending college for four years has implications far beyond those that time period — it takes the average student about 20 years to pay off student loans. Student debt can be crippling and prevent students from following certain career paths simply for financial reasons. Rosensweig believes that students will start to look at college through the lens of ROIs. If the investment of money and time will not improve earning potential over the course of a life, then students should stop participating in four year degree programs.
While I firmly support the increased expectations Rosensweig demands of Higher Ed institutions, critiquing educational institutions is a delicate balance. On one hand, these institutions must be commended for the work they do daily — teaching and inspiring students is not an easy task, and I personally have been fortunate to have the support of many educators throughout my life. Besides, part of education is helping students learn to adapt, be uncomfortable, and persevere. There will never be a perfect system, and students learn through some of these imperfections. On the other hand, this does not mean we should not fully expect that institutions are consistently prioritizing the needs and concerns of their students. Though the system will never be perfect, this must not discourage educators, administrators, and politicians from working to make it better daily. With a student-centric, innovative approach to teaching and a flexible, skills-based path to earning, we can create Higher Ed institutions that can better educate our students and change the world for good.
Check out the full video featuring Dan Rosensweig, President & CEO of Chegg, and Courtenay Brown, Markets Reporter at Axios, below:
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Happy New Year to all!