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Peering Over The Cliff

Is higher education having a Wile E. Coyote moment?

July 30, 2015

Is higher education having a Wile E. Coyote moment?

Right now it seems as if we’re all watching Wile E. Coyote standing on that thin ledge and we know what’s about to happen, but it’s unclear whether or not he does.

For those of you unfamiliar with Wile E. Coyote, he is the hapless coyote forever chasing the clever, agile Roadrunner that always outwits the coyote’s plots to catch him. In most episodes there is a scene that goes like this:  Wile E. Coyote fails in another attempt to catch the roadrunner and finds himself on a very thin ledge overhanging a deep canyon canyon and we, the audience, can see what a precarious position Wile E. is in as we hear a crack in the ledge and see small pebbles fall. 

At about that moment, Wile E. looks at us with a “what?!?” expression, and we’re not sure whether he’s oblivious to the fact that he’s no longer on solid ground or whether he somehow senses something not quite right, but either doesn’t know what it is that’s wrong or isn’t quite ready to admit there’s anything amiss (or both).  A moment later we hear a louder crack, see the ledge fall away, and Wile E. is suspended in the air with a “Oh #*@!” look on his face right before gravity takes over and he falls deep into the canyon

There have been a spate of reports, articles, and stories lately that showcase how an increasingly large number of schools may be on that thin ledge and the cracks are beginning to show and the pebbles are starting to fall:

  • New, non-accredited organizations are becoming quite successful at helping people retool for new careers:  According to a recent NYT article,  “coding academies” like Flatiron School, Hack Reactor, and Galvanize, are offering 10-24-week web programming courses from anywhere from about $10,000-$21,000, cater to career changers, and have very high placement rates.  Interesting note: some of these schools use selective admissions.  Galvanize, for example, accepts about 20 percent of applicants and boasts a 98 percent placement rate. As another example, Udacity notes that, at the end of one of their nanodegrees, Google invites the top students – all expenses paid – to meet with their engineers and recruiters, effectively building both an alternative credential and an alternative path to employment. 
  • Pioneering online education and MOOC providers are adapting quickly and “figuring it out”:  In addition to Udacity and coding academies, some traditional schools are advancing quickly. According to a recent Washington Post article, MIT “is pondering whether to launch new online education programs that would generate revenue.”  According to a 2014 MIT task force report, “The very notion of a ‘class’ may be outdated,” and the school is looking at creating classes built on smaller modules that can be combined in different ways to create more customized learning opportunities. 
  • Increased scrutiny of accreditors and questions about their true purpose:  As a recent WSJ article mentions, “accreditors hardly ever kick out the worst-performing colleges and lack uniform standards for assessing graduation rates and loan defaults.”   The article goes on to say that “the six regional accrediting organizations oversee more than 3,000 colleges.  In the past 15 years, those accreditors have rescinded the membership of 26 educational institutions. . . When accreditation was yanked away from a college, the move usually was for the college’s own financial problems, accreditors say.”
  • The future of higher education may come in shorter bursts, different types of certification, and aimed at connecting job seekers and employers:  In a recent MIT Technology Review article, Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun talks about how he’s ‘creating a rival to traditional postsecondary education: a university focuses on lifelong learning, in very small portion sizes, on demand and in a mobile format’ and how they are adding new programs developed with private business. 
  • There may be a fair, effective and profitable way to scale online education – and include a ‘human touch’:  In the same MIT Technology Review article, Thrun discusses how they deliver high-quality, personalized feedback to students using a distributed team of professional coders: 

“At Udacity, we built an Uber-like platform. With Uber any normal person with a car can become a driver, and with Udacity now every person with a computer can become a global code reviewer. And the mechanics for the code reviewer are the same: you’re being paid per code review, and you’re being assessed by your students. Our global code reviewers, on average, out of a five-point possible score, get 4.8 points. They give students back a very insightful and detailed, human-level, expert-level review of their work, typically within two hours, including detailed feedback on coding style, what works, what doesn’t work, and so on. Just like Uber, we’ve made the financials line up. The best-earning global code reviewer makes more than 17,000 bucks a month. I compare this to the typical part-time teacher in the U.S. who teaches at a college—they make about $2,000 a month. . .

. . . The grader’s ability to stay in the network to make money is directly contingent on student love. So he or she is going to work really, really hard to make their review extremely insightful. The student wants an insightful review; they pay us money to get the most insightful review. By giving them the power to review the grader, all the incentives line up.”

Next up: What’s A Small College To Do?


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