Rebundling College

Higher education faces challenges, writes Larry D. Large. But the solution isn't to further break apart its functions, but to bolster them.

April 7, 2015

Defenders of higher education are on the ramparts. Again. This time, the ivory tower is under assault from a pitchfork-carrying crowd marching under the banner of reducing the cost of baccalaureate degree programs via the use of new technologies, especially online learning.

Predictions of the demise of the traditional baccalaureate program, especially at residential liberal arts colleges, have resonated through a spate of books and articles over the past few months. The planned closure of Sweet Briar College amplified the message that our institutions of higher learning are on the brink (and this at the height of the college acceptance/rejection season).

But are things really so dire for traditional undergraduate education? Are we really looking at The End of College, as Kevin Carey insists? As we consider the impact of new technologies on higher education, must college be “unbound,” “disrupted” or “unbundled” in order to best serve this generation of students? 

It will be several years before we are able to assess the long-term viability and validity of an unbundled college program, but I believe unbundling is a fatally flawed approach. Rebundling is my rallying cry.

Why rebundling? 

Many proposals to unbundle traditional higher education advocate a complete reinvention of the undergraduate experience. These proposals often dismiss or fail to make best use of excellent resources within existing institutions. Moreover, those wishing to unbundle the traditional baccalaureate degree program haven’t adequately considered the way teenagers entering college would experience an unbundled education. They overlook the fact that achieving success in an unbundled degree program requires a level of cognitive and developmental maturity that teenagers often don’t possess. (Adult learners, on the other hand, more often have the level of executive functioning necessary to successfully complete an online program, which is one reason why online learning has become such a useful option for this demographic.)

Finally, advocates of unbundling have not solved the dilemma of accreditation. For employers and graduate schools, established colleges and universities have long played an important role in certifying the meaning and value of the degrees they confer. In my opinion, there are two inviolable tenets of American higher education: to make students smarter and to recognize them as “certified smart.” What institution or agency will provide comparable certification for a degree from the “university of everywhere” (to use Kevin Carey’s term), a degree that is the aggregate of course components from diverse sources? 

Under the leadership of Senator Lamar Alexander, a congressional committee is considering this issue. However, if a push to embrace unbundled degree programs results in a number of new agencies to accredit those programs, such a proliferation will likely diminish the current value of accreditation. Second, even if the number of new accrediting bodies is limited, any newly created agencies will have to establish track records of reliability over time in order to be viewed as comparable to the certification offered by existing colleges and universities. 

As a response to these challenges, my proposal to rebundle college preserves the primacy, integrity and identity of existing institutions. Rebundling college will benefit students, reduce costs and provide the necessary certification of a given program of study by a college or university faculty. 

This model will require many existing institutions to reorganize so that they, in effect, become the curators of an education for each enrolled student.

Individualized degree programs will be culled and created from many sources, much in the way an art exhibit is curated so that separate pieces come together to form a coherent, integrated whole. With oversight from their enrolling institutions, students will select from a variety of traditional and emerging pedagogies as well as other academic and co-curricular resources that existing institutions provide. 

My model for rebundling college has three parts:

Part One: Educational and Financial Commitment

The first part involves the student and family making a commitment to planning a course for an individual’s education from (ideally) middle school through college. Planning could be initiated and overseen at the school district or the state level, perhaps through a mechanism similar to the Achievement Compacts developed by the Oregon Education Investment Board. Trust me: I do not underestimate this challenge given the current cultural patterns of limited or no forethought to developing a plan for postsecondary education among scores of families. Financial planning support must be made available to families through guided online learning modules, or where resources permit, group or individual counseling sessions that begin (again, ideally) in middle school, with special incentives for the lowest-income families.

And the individual plans -- digitized and kept within the control of the student and family -- can be updated periodically.  

Part Two: Curriculum

The second part involves customizing a curriculum required for a student to complete a degree program. The institution at which the student eventually enrolls will support and oversee this process, curating a student’s education according to its own distinctive mission and goals. 

The courses needed to complete the degree program may be taken at a home campus, or, where necessary, outside classes (reviewed and approved in advance by the home campus) would be purchased for the student. This process, similar to cross-registration protocols currently employed by collaborating institutions, would also encompass the purchase and delivery of online course content. This model reduces the need for a single campus to provide highly specialized but low-enrollment courses, thereby improving efficiency and reducing costs.

Part Three: Co-curricular Experiences

The third part focuses on co-curricular educational experiences. Participation in study abroad programs, intercollegiate athletics, or work with a faculty member on a specific research project, for example, can be layered into this model according to individual student interests and aspirations. These options would be priced separately and reviewed with an eye toward the overall financial strategy in place for the student. While these opportunities add significantly to the educational experience of each student, this model accepts that institutions may not be able to provide all opportunities for all enrolled students. Therefore, great care must be taken in order to avoid exacerbating the equity divide in higher education. This will require additional financial aid to low-income students, aid that is likely to be campus based. Moreover, it is not expected that students coming from wealthy families will uniformly engage in all options for high-impact co-curricular experiences.

This tripartite model for rebundling college has distinct advantages when compared to models of an unbundled education.  

First, this model specifically addresses issues of student readiness for, and access to, higher education. Most importantly, this model directly engages students and their families in a beneficial, comprehensive academic and financial planning process that is currently lacking among students of traditional college-bound age, but is so critical for student persistence and success in a degree program.

Second, the curated, individualized educational program provides necessary structure and guidance for students as they develop the cognitive, personal and technological skills needed to earn a degree. This model integrates new technology and online learning opportunities as appropriate for individual students -- opportunities that are brokered, reviewed and recommended by faculty at the home campus. Ultimately, the curated educational program will reflect the distinctive ethos of a specific college or university faculty dedicated to a complete and cohesive vision of what a graduating student should know and have experienced. This model for rebundling college, therefore, offers a means of quality control and reliable certification of all degrees granted. The degrees earned by students retain an institutional imprimatur, which is significant for employers and graduate schools. 

While this model addresses issues of equity and access in higher education, it does not assume public investment in a full residential college experience for every traditional student. Instead, this model advocates that institutions do as much as they can for as many as can afford the opportunity, while still being cost-effective. 

These evolving dynamics and demands on institutional leadership and faculty will lead to changes to our traditional models, and debate about the effect of disruptive technology on higher education is in the early stages. Those on the ramparts of the ivory tower and those carrying pitchforks are set for a long battle. The best way forward is the détente proposed for rebundling college.


Larry D. Large is president of the Oregon Alliance of Independent Colleges and Universities.


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