• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


Uber for Lobbyists

I've identified a new sector that's ripe for disruption.

October 5, 2015

I am concerned about the declining quality in our higher education lobbyists.

My worry was triggered by yesterday’s Inside Higher Ed commentary from Terrell Halaska, a former Bush administration Department of Education official and founding partner of HCM Strategists, which, best I can tell from the corporate gobbledygook on their website is a lobbying/consulting combo platter.

Ms. Halaska has come to tell us about Uber – Have you heard of it? – and how it revolutionized the taxicab industry and that something similar is happening, or maybe needs to happen, in higher education.

I’m concerned that our lobbying and consulting class has run out of ideas. Uber for education – Uber for anything – is so 2014.

Who is going to buy what the lobbyists are selling if they’re peddling such stale metaphors? If this keeps up, we’ll have a real crisis on our hands. Without lobbyists dreaming up increasingly farfetched analogies, how will we possibly disruptively innovate toward a better future?

Perhaps we need a Snapchat for higher ed lobbyists, an app that briefly displays their policy proposals before erasing them from view so that when they recycle the same idea three months later, we won’t be able to tell how closely it resembles what came before.

To be fair, I did learn some things I didn’t know before from Halaska’s piece. For example, in the concluding paragraph, I found out that three years ago it was “farfetched” to hail a car from the “comfort of one’s own bed.” This caused me to question a very clear memory from 1999 when I failed to set an alarm and woke up with not enough time to take the El to O’Hare on my way to a business trip. I reached for the phone, dialed Flash Cab and the car was waiting for me before I exited the shower. I didn’t even have to worry about being downgraded as a quality passenger because of the delay.

I also learned that the future of higher education will “focus on meeting students where they are,” which is apparently the great innovation of Uber, its ability to drop a “pin at the riders’ exact location.” I am now wondering how taxi drivers pre-Uber ever found me. Could it be that an address also worked well?

Sometimes, in an unfamiliar city, I managed to hail a taxi without having any idea where I was and still arrived safely at my desired destination. Amazing, except that I suppose now it never happened.

It is this aspect of education that really needs disrupting. Uber is great if you know where you want to go, but what if – like many students – you don’t really know what route you want to take, or even what routes exist?

Tinder for education! Swipe left for careers you don’t find attractive, right for the opposite.

HCM Strategists needs a team of a dozen professionals for these insights. I came up with that over my morning oatmeal. Get ready to be disrupted, disruptors.

One of the ways I can tell that a particular policy wonk or lobbyist has no actual experience working in education or with students themselves is when they theorize that students could effectively “build a degree from scratch” as Halaska argues. To Halaska, this could happen, “Once someone figures out an app that allows students to essentially build a degree from scratch, incorporating various institutions and alternate providers, and allows them to aggregate their sources of funding to pay for it, access to and success in higher education will be fundamentally changed.”

This is the major tell of the consultant class, the way they discuss the problem of “access” to education. For the disruptors, it is a matter of utilizing digital tools to bring Harvard to our laptops. This, somehow, equates to “putting students first” which really means casting them adrift into the marketplace.

But for most students, there is little issue with this kind of access. We have a nationwide network of community colleges and trade schools. Online education is a fully mature category with thousands of options.

The access problem for education in this country centers around one issue: cost. And the much more significant issue facing the newly educated – and everyone else for that matter – is the closing window of economic opportunity that education is expected to bring.

To be fair, Halaska recognizes the limits of her own analogy, saying “It is inappropriate to literally compare the individual demand born out of the sharing economy with cultivating the intellect and skills needed to succeed in today’s economy. Higher education clearly provides more to students than a transportation app does to consumers.”

I must ask, if it is so inappropriate, why do we keep doing it? Why are the very serious people of Washington D.C. subjecting education to models that are self-evidently ridiculous.

I have a theory. I imagine it is related to the $2.5 billion in ed tech investment in educational “innovation” that Halaska cites.

Lobbyists and consultants need to stoke these narratives because they are on the grift and that pile of investor cash is the down they use to feather their nests.

The lobbyists don’t actually create anything. They connect capital to the levers of government with pinpoint accuracy, on demand, taking a cut of the total for their trouble.

Hmm…that sounds vaguely similar to the business model of a so-called disruptive ride sharing app.

Maybe that’s why they love the analogy so much.




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