University Ventures (UV) is one of the rare creatures of the VC/PE investment universe; a fund that claims to be the “only investment firm focused exclusively on the global higher education sector”. UV has made some interesting investments over the years, riding the current wave of technology-led transformation in one of the most stodgy sections of the economy. Underlying these plays is a strong and well-defined investment philosophy, expressed in their fortnightly investment newsletter, written usually by the co-founder, Ryan Craig, a veteran of the education investing world.
Each of these newsletters starts with a humorous, sometimes outrageous anecdote, which sets up the argument or thesis that Craig wants to introduce. Craig’s theses are often contrarian to accepted wisdom in the education world. What has worked for Ryan and the UV newsletter is the fact that, for one, few people on the business side of education articulate their views regularly – a majority of the content on higher education stakes out the position from the academic side – and secondly, the skewering of many of the traditional higher education shibboleths that most people in higher ed hold dear, such as the drive towards research excellence and student selectivity in universities seeking to climb the rankings ladder, aspects of a phenomenon that Craig refers to as isomorphism. According to Craig, this Harvard-envy is a pernicious practice that ill-serves the cause of the vast majority of students attending the university, and is disconnected from student outcomes.
Given the above, it was with great anticipation that I picked up Craig’s book College Disrupted, which came out earlier this year. College Disrupted explores key themes that are at the heart of the transformation that higher ed globally, and especially in the U.S., is going through. In this regard, this is only one of a clutch of books such as Jeff Selingo’s College Un(bound) and Kevin Carey’s The End of College, that have been published in the past year or so, exploring the themes of unbundling and technology-led enhancements of education such as MOOCs and adaptive learning. Still, I thought Craig’s book in particular deserved a closer look, given that he is one of the few education thinkers who looks at higher ed unabashedly from the student and business-side, ever willing to take on many of higher ed’s sacred cows.
College Disrupted is not a very long book – about 200-odd well-spaced pages – and is certainly not difficult to read. There are lots of anecdotes – about institutions undergoing transformation, as well as personal ones from Craig’s life (more about that below), in order to lighten the mood. For those who are regular readers of UV Newsletter, and I am one, the book is a reasonably interesting revisiting of many familiar concepts that Craig touches upon in his newsletters. But for someone new to Craig’s thinking, it might certainly be a perspective disrupting read.
Here is a gist of the book, followed by my comments on it.
A quick digest of the book
U.S. universities are not outcome focussed. Rather they are all focussed on delivering the same type of inputs, thanks to the 4 Rs (Rankings, Research, Real Estate and Rah, or sports) which characterise the typical university. Additionally universities have delivered a bundled experience thus far. But as online delivery of education improves, the unbundling of the traditional functions served by the university will accelerate. The elite legacy campuses will persist, but many of the non-elite campuses will be forced to become hybrid universities focused strongly on student learning and outcomes. These hybrid universities will be built around competency-based learning, and will focus on delivering job-relevant capabilities, leading to enhanced student outcomes and satisfaction.
Thoughts on the book
On the whole I think the book certainly succeeds in its objective – that the present structure and processes in higher education are not student-oriented, and that as technology becomes more and more central to the delivery of education, we are going to see a fundamental restructuring of the higher education institution and the landscape. It is a good starting point for someone seeking to understand the process of transformation underway, and build a mental model of the sector. Still I do have some points of observation about the work.
- One issue I had with the book, and this is acknowledged by Craig in the very first line of his foreword, is that the book is essentially a knitting together of a series of his newsletters. The obvious challenge that emerges from this is the one i shared before, that a regular reader of the newsletters will not find it as exciting as someone who has no exposure to the concepts. The other challenge is that not all the chapters in the book knit themselves into a cohesive whole. Some of the chapters – the one on exporting the U.S. model abroad, as well as on regulation of for-profit institutions by the Obama administration seemed rather ad hoc and force-fitted into the structure that the collection entails.
- One aspect of Craig’s writing, his extensive use of anecdotes of which a fair bit are about his experiences at Yale, will provoke strong reactions. Readers will either love it or hate it. Sometimes these work very well, such as the Van Halen anecdote relating to signal metrics, and sometimes they don’t, such as the blue beads prank he plays at Yale. For me, given that I have been a long time reader of the UV newsletter, these were a blind spot.
- I felt Craig missed out a chance to talk about his experience with Fathom (the fore-runner of the MOOC) as well as Bridgepoint and Wellspring, two ventures that he founded. And he also doesnt dwell as much as he perhaps could have on some of the interesting investments that UV has made, e.g., Portfolium, ProSky, Galvanize etc – all of whose investment thesis emerges broadly from the concept of unbundling. There are very few pure education investors out there today, and the journey and making of an education investor would have been of interest to many observers of the education industry as well.
- The book also misses out somewhat on engaging with the deeper implications of the trends that are underway – to illustrate, let us take the case of competency-led education, a key theme in the book. What does the rise of the competency-led movement imply for the number of courses that we see at present? Are we likely to see a pruning of the number of courses (or majors) that will be on offer. After all if it is a competency that has to be instilled – say critical thinking, and say within that deductive thinking, then does it matter if it is delivered via history or through a class of mental exercises / puzzles? If we assume the above holds true, then a reduction in the number of courses or majors can be foreseen. This will be welcomed by many students and perhaps colleges as well. A reduction in the number of courses will reduce complexity in the credit pathway, making it simpler for the student to select the relevant courses, and thus reduce time (and money spent) for graduation. Universities should also be happy to take advantage of the reduced number of courses and reduce the number of faculty as well. This has interesting implications for the university’s ability (except for tier 1 elite universities) to be a platform for enabling research. This will speed up the flight of research talent into corporates and specialized thinktanks and research institutions (Livermore, NASA etc).
- A last quibble has to do with Craig ignoring institutions such as Minerva, which is a bold rethinking of the traditional university. Between the traditional top tier and the competency-orienter lower tier will likely be a parallel set of institutions with a twist on the traditional bundle or a reimagining of the way the bundle is constructed. Craig’s binary hypothesis of institutions separating into a traditional elite tier and a strongly outcome-oriented lower tier may have to be relooked at some point in this light.
One more thing
Usually, though not always, I try and do a summary of books that I read and found interesting. Typically these are books which I would like to revisit / refer to. A summary makes it easier to come to grips with a topic that I am revisiting after a few months or years. College Disrupted was interesting enough for me to take a crack at a summary (or condensation as I call it). Here is the summary.
This is the first summary that I am making available for public consumption. While I am curious to see how many people end up downloading the summary, I would really urge those downloading the summary to check out, and buy Craig’s book as well. Happy reading!