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Most For-Profit Solutions Don’t Threaten Universities’ Core Missions

A guest post by John Clark, a senior consultant at WGU Labs and adjunct instructor at Dominican University in River Forest, Ill.

August 22, 2021
 
 

In a recent piece, Edward Maloney and Joshua Kim lament the “rush of big money into higher education,” which portends the “outsourcing” of “core capacities” to for-profit companies. The piece, while compelling, leans on a few tired assumptions about partnerships between for-profit companies and universities.

First, a definitional quibble: drawing clear moral stakes between “nonprofit” and “for-profit” outfits is a relic of a bygone era. Today, Team Nonprofit features many leviathans with endowments larger than the GDP of midsize countries. And Team For-Profit represents scores of tinkerers scrambling to meet next month’s payroll for a half dozen workers.

Yes, publicly traded online program managers occupy much of the oxygen in the for-profit space. But they’re a small slice of a pie that includes a host of innovators who more resemble, to deploy another weighted term, mom-and-pop small businesses.

In sum: I don’t see a rush of big money that threatens to subvert universities’ core missions. Most fruitful for-profit partnerships don’t require universities to outsource responsibility. And these collaborations rarely undermine universities’ ability to retain control of core capacities.

The ‘Rush of Big Money’ Is Smaller Than You’d Think

In my role at WGU Labs, I work with plucky ed-tech start-ups, most of which are built on lines of code designed to solve a particular problem. These lines of codes are written by dreamers, thinkers and ambitious educators, most of whom could make more money elsewhere.

In 2020, U.S. ed-tech companies raised a total of $2.2 billion. This represents 1 percent of the $156 billion invested in U.S. start-ups last year. And core to the loftiest ed-tech valuations is investors’ assumption that the company will attract customers outside higher education. (Amusingly, this is viewed as the field’s failure to generate “hypergrowth.”)

The open secret in the investment world is that selling things to universities is a lousy way to get rich. The total addressable market is just too thin. “Big money” may be a threat to universities for other reasons -- imagine Microsoft University -- but it won’t come at the hands of rapacious ed-tech investors.

‘Outsourcing’ Is a Bug, Not a Feature, of Successful Partnerships

There are, admittedly, plenty of examples of universities outsourcing core capacities to third-party companies. Private dorms, for example, often exaggerate inequities on campus and sometimes may be scams.

But the term “outsourcing” fails to draw a distinction between clumsy hand-offs to third-party vendors and thoughtful collaborations between ed-tech companies and universities looking to foster student success.

When a CTO partners with a company to plug automated nudges into its learning management system, or a director of continuing education joins forces with a provider of digital skills microcredentials, students gain more than universities lose. And schools retain full control of the learning experience.

‘Core Capacities’ Are Difficult to Define

In their piece, Maloney and Kim cite both “academic departments” and “football team[s]” as examples of “core capacities.” I’ve seen little evidence of waves of universities rushing to outsource entire undergraduate departments. (Graduate programs, to be fair, are a different story.)

And football teams just aren’t core to the learning experience. They’ll soon be outsourced anyway, and rightly so. The abrupt exodus of Texas and Oklahoma to the Southeastern Conference likely portends a departure of many programs from the NCAA itself.

I doubt this will have negative consequences for the median student. If anything, letting wealthy entities fund football will free funds for campus activities that don’t involve helmets. Major college football, in brief, should be outsourced.

The Future of For-Profit and Nonprofit Partnerships

I’m a teacher who works for a nonprofit organization that partners with for-profit companies. I often joke, with some sincerity, that students and companies alike view me as something of a hack.

But my candid view is this: (1) ed-tech companies won’t soon dominate universities, and (2) when nonprofit organizations keep a grip on the steering wheel, collaborations with for-profit companies can yield great results.

If I sound a bit defensive, it’s because I wrestle with this issue every day. As a teacher, I often loathe the intrusion of the next great ed-tech bell and whistle. Sometimes I just want to teach.

As a partner to ed-tech companies, I often cringe at default dismissals of for-profit solutions due to a misguided notion that the creators of these tools are swimming in vaults of cash. They’re usually not.

Maloney and Kim are right to recommend approaching ed-tech companies with “deliberation, prudence and circumspection.” But the approach must also involve curiosity, openness and humility. Students, not institutions, are the core stakeholders. And they have much to gain.

John Clark is a senior consultant at WGU Labs and adjunct instructor at Dominican University in River Forest, Ill.

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