The Privilege Bundle

The problem with calls for the unbundling of higher education.

March 28, 2018

The bundle gets a bad rap.  Want to look smart the next time you are on stage participating in another academic panel of dubious value.  Just say something like “the future of higher ed is unbundling”. Trust me, nobody will argue with you.  I know, as “unbundling” is one of my panel go to catch phrases when I can’t think of something actually smart to say about higher education.

But maybe those in the room should argue with the pro-unbundlers.

Those of you who occasionally find yourself through a serious of questionable decisions reading this blog know that I bought a big TV when the younger daughter went off the college.  Feeding this new TV is 220 channels from Comcast.  Our household went from one of dedicated cord cutters when the kids were at home, to cable bundlers when the kids left.

And here I have to tell you, the cable bundle is glorious.  Not only can I watch everything that is on every TV network, I can watch on demand.  I can watch on my phone.  I can watch on my laptop.  I can watch on my iPad.  The cloud DVR means I can record whatever I may want to watch, and then quickly skip over all the commercials.  Never again will I watch a live basketball or football game.

A traditional college experience is a bundled experience.

The minority of all students who we still call “traditional” (we shouldn’t) are those who “go” to college.  They study and live on or near campus.  The tuition and fees that they pay provides a bundle of courses (and credits), housing (at least in the first year or two for non-commuters), food (the meal plan), and access to resources and amenities.

These resources and amenities vary widely, but they usually involve an academic library, a student center, and an athletic facility.  At some schools the tuition and fee bundle subsidizes access to cultural, social, and athletic events.  The bundled undergraduate traditional student experience should be as friction free as possible.  Barriers to doing new things, whether that of taking a course or participating in an intramural sport outside of one’s comfort zone, should be low.

The more inclusive the bundle, the lower the direct and opportunity costs are for trying new things.

I worry that we are moving towards a system of higher education where only the privileged few will have access to the bundle.  If we believe that talent is more broadly distributed than is wealth, we should want those with talent to do some exploring and wandering in college.

Maybe it is okay that only those with disposable income should get the the cable TV bundle.  Cable TV, however, is not a social good. Tomorrow’s citizens, parents, leaders, and workers are not created with the remote in hand.

Higher education is what creates opportunity.  (Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise).  The bundle, I’d submit, is part of that opportunity generator.

We should fight against the urge to unbundle college for everybody else, while the privileged few continue to enjoy the benefits of the bundle.

What are your favorite bundled things?


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