What student-focused innovation is waiting to transform higher education in the way the passenger-focused transport service has challenged taxis? Terrell Halaska asks.

October 5, 2015

For more than 100 years, taxicabs were the kings of the road. They set prices and buddied up with lawmakers who promised to help them keep the meters running. Then, in 2009, an app changed everything. Uber created an interface that finally put the passenger in charge of the ride, and the taxicab establishment has been in chaos ever since.

Similarly, in a field where policy makers and universities currently sit in the driver’s seat, we should anticipate that one day soon higher education will face a similar disruption.

Make no mistake, innovation is already alive and well in the education-technology industry, which has received more than $2.51 billion from investors so far in 2015, and is on track to potentially double the $2.42 billion total invested last year. As Carl Straumsheim observes in Inside Higher Ed, leading the charge is the sale of Lynda.com to LinkedIn -- a marriage between an online learning platform and a social network committed to enhancing and marketing its users’ professional skills. The concept makes complete sense, yet most people probably never saw it coming.

The same can be said for the ever diversifying set of institutions and other entities offering students a path toward a fulfilling and lucrative career. Now, in addition to public, private and for-profit colleges and universities, there’s a rise in short-term training programs, most visibly in the coding boot camp space. It’s a model based on the logic that a student simply doesn’t need a computer science degree to become a front-end web developer making upward of $50,000 per year, only specialized training spanning a short 12 weeks.

Admittedly, the long-term success of these programs remains unknown. They are relatively new and their graduates still make up a tiny percentage of higher education students. But it’s undoubtedly a growing model that has caught the eyes of both nontraditional students and the White House, which recently held a summit to discuss ways these programs can partner with traditional colleges and universities (and become Pell Grant eligible, by the way).

Just as Uber drops a pin at riders’ exact location, the future of these and other higher education innovations will focus on meeting students where they are. It will no longer matter if a student is 10 or 1,000 miles away from a campus, if socioeconomic barriers preclude four years at Harvard, or if a niche major is only offered at a handful of institutions.

The next billionaire doesn’t have to hold the key to all of these problems, just an entrepreneurial urge to create an intermediary between the students and those who offer the solutions. 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.

Think about it. A student could enroll in general education courses in person at a local Dallas community college while concurrently completing mechanical engineering classes online at MIT (whose partnership with edX already brings this idea a step closer to reality). And if she was so inclined, she could enroll on the side in a short-term coding program at the Iron Yard that earned her academic credit and practical job skills she could use at a part-time job while in school. The app would present her work earnings alongside her federal or private loans and grant aid, showing her the best way to pay for her custom degree.

True, we do not yet know the future realities of learning and engagement. 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.

However, consider the empowerment potential of relevant, on-demand education at the physical and financial convenience of the student. Yes, transportation and higher education are distinctive fields indeed, but the metaphor becomes all the more powerful when the question of access is the common denominator, and innovation part of the answer. Who is to say that more individuals cannot become the drivers of their own education, enabled with the proper tools and guidance?

It sounds farfetched, but so did hailing a car from the comfort of one’s own bed just three years ago. I believe there is someone out there who is on the verge of creating a sort of UberEd, and it is almost certainly not a university president or federal lawmaker. Instead, it’s an entrepreneur who grasps the importance of putting students first who stands to start making waves in higher education.


Terrell Halaska is a former assistant U.S. secretary of education and founding partner at HCM Strategists.


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