If you've ever used the word disruption to refer to innovations that create new markets 
and displace long-established companies and products, you might have Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen and his best-selling book The Innovator's Dilemma to thank.

More recently, Christensen has predicted traditional colleges and universities are ripe for disruption, arguing online education will undermine their business models (because education is, ultimately, a business) to such a degree that many won't survive.

A principle of Christensen's theory of disruption is that technology itself is not the disrupter. For example, Netflix created a new business model; streaming video made that business model possible. As Christensen says, "Technology enables the new business model to coalesce." Technology is the tool -- not the end result.

Which is exactly what he feels is occurring in higher education. As online and "hybrid" learning continue to grow -- and as the cost of a traditional education continues to increase -- many institutions will struggle to stay in business under their current model.  

And fewer people may be willing to pay for the piece of paper they receive.

Is a Harvard B-School degree worth $400,000?

During a speech at last year's Salesforce.org Higher Ed Summit, Christensen said it costs almost $400,000 to get a degree from HBS, and "that price point has made it such that the only people who can afford it are would-be McKinsey consultants, hedge-fund managers, and the like. Our customers need so much money in opening salary to pay off their debt that we have overshot the salaries."

Or, in simpler terms, the return may not justify the investment.

Of course, the same principle applies to other schools and degrees. While many college students are primarily interested in the education they receive, others see their degree as a ticket: The degree (hopefully) provides entrance to their chosen career. 

Want to be an engineer? You need an engineering degree.

I'm not knocking that approach. I went to college because I thought it would allow me to get a better job. Taking classes was what I had to do to get a degree. Did I learn a lot? Absolutely, but not as much as I would have learned if I had been focused on the education instead of the outcome: getting a degree.

That piece of paper is the ticket, but it indicates very little about whether you will be a great engineer. MIT, for example, produces great engineers. Yet I feel sure it also turns out some who are terrible. 

And those who don't have a ticket -- because they couldn't afford one, didn't have good enough grades in high school, whatever the reason -- are left on the outside looking in, unable to get the degree or certificate or knowledge they need.

But that's starting to change.

And the rate of change will only increase. 

Imagine if Amazon entered the higher-education marketplace

Amazon has almost unprecedented technology infrastructure and know-how. Amazon understands its customers' behavior to an incredible degree. 

Compare Amazon's ability to deliver what you want, how you want it, and when you want it, with that of the average college or university. Or even with the growing number of online universities and hybrid universities, and especially with the "traditional" institutions that offer online learning options.

Amazon would crush those folks.

Will Amazon do so? Probably not. I just used it as an example.

But some smart company will, and unless you work for a higher institution, that's OK -- in fact, possibly more than OK.

Ultimately, the goal of an education -- at least in career terms -- is to provide graduates with the knowledge, skills, and at least some of the experience they need to begin the lifelong process of achieving success in their chosen field. 

A degree indicates you know how to earn a degree; it doesn't necessarily mean you know how to do a job. Applicable knowledge matters. Applicable skills matter. Applicable experience matters.

Smart entrepreneurs -- and smart hiring managers -- care not so much about what you did in school, but what you can do on the job. 

And it's likely that soon a new educational business model will better deliver graduates who not only have a ticket -- and deliver more of those graduates, because everyone willing to work for a ticket deserves to earn that ticket -- but also more of the skills they need. They want to know how to do what they want to do, and they want to be able to learn in the way that is best for them. Not for the provider.

That's what people who hope to achieve big things really want.

And that's what employers really want from their people.

Win-win.

Published on: Mar 15, 2019
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