Why Innovation Beats Politics in Reforming Higher Education

(The following article is adapted from a speech given on July 31 at the Pope Center’s Friedman Legacy Day event in Pinehurst, North Carolina.)

There is a powerful lesson in the emergence of companies like Uber for those who wish to reform higher education. All the focus tends to be on political and policy debates, but meanwhile innovators are busy working around the status quo without waiting for permission or consensus. 

Government granted monopolies are inefficient and unfair. The cartel structure of the taxi industry is a clear instance of the economic losses, higher prices, and lower quality that results. Policy wonks and would-be political reformers have been writing papers about this for decades.

All the arguments and efforts of reformers largely fell on deaf ears.

Then Uber came along. A startup completely outside of the political system and not interested in winning economic arguments or policy battles simply put a better experience into the hands of consumers. No academic or bureaucrat had to be convinced, and no politician had to fight union interests to pass a bill.

The status quo never saw it coming, and by the time they caught on, it was too late. Uber is here to stay.

This is a powerful case contrasting two approaches to changing backward institutions. Cab customers don’t care about economic arguments or cartel regulations. They just want to get from point A to point B. They may complain about the experience, but dissatisfaction won’t be enough to warrant hours spent educating, lobbying, or protesting.

The status quo persists because the regulatory regime concentrates the benefits on a few special interests while the costs are spread over millions of individuals with busy lives.

Uber, by providing an alternative experience directly to the consumers, made them the beneficiaries of a better system. Alternative experiences are a powerful force for change, even more feared by the status quo than critical ideas and theories. That’s why the Soviet Union banned not just free-market textbooks, but blue jeans, jazz, and Marlboro. When citizens experience the alternative, suddenly they are dissatisfied with the stagnant options on the table.

So what does innovation look like in higher education? How can alternative experiences be created to force academia to get in shape and better serve customers?

To answer this we need to first establish what the actual good being sold is. Taxis and Uber sell the same basic service, transportation from A to B. What are people buying from college?

Contrary to what many people—including professors—assume, students aren’t buying knowledge or skill. They’re not buying a network or even a social experience for the most part either.

To prove this you can simply ask why anyone would pay tuition. You can move to a college town, go to parties, hang around the campus bookstore and student union, and even sit in on classes and do assignments for free without enrolling.

The reason students don’t do this is because none of those experiences are the product they are purchasing. In fact, class is often seen as an additional cost that they must endure to get the product, which is why they are excited when it’s cancelled.

The product being bought is the credential. The credential drives the entire industry and is what causes millions to go deep into debt for an experience they often don’t love and admit doesn’t make them any more valuable in terms of tangible skills.

College credentials are valuable due to their signalling value. Your degree sends a signal to the world that you are, ostensibly, better than a similar person without the credential. This signal has some meaning; making it through college means you’re probably better than someone who lacked the intelligence or drive to do so–but it’s a shockingly low bar.

The proliferation of degreed people and the decline in ability among incoming freshman has turned college into little more than what high school once was.

I remember sitting in a classroom and having an epiphany as I overheard the hungover conversation of some classmates. Those people, I realized, were going to walk out of the university with the same credential as me. So all I was really buying was a piece of paper that said I’m no worse than that guy with his half-sober head on the desk.

Employers readily admit that degrees tell them little these days. Everyone seems to have one but few have relevant skills and experiences. Many, especially small businesses and startups, don’t even use it as a baseline anymore. Even those that still do require something more on top of it to signal who is really high quality.

Getting back to our Uber example, until the alternative was created and made accessible to consumers, no one was dissatisfied enough to demand taxi reform. Students today are in a similar place. A growing number are dissatisfied with the product.

The problem is that most students don’t become dissatisfied until they’re already in college and realize it’s not all that valuable. Or worse, they only realize that after they’ve graduated with a load of debt but little knowledge, skill, or ability to create value.

Most college students still believe that the credential it gives them is the one and only way to get from point A to point B. They thoughtlessly apply like New Yorkers used to hail cabs.  That’s where competition comes in. Today, it’s possible for young people to build their own signal that is more valuable than a degree.

No longer do you have to rely solely on an institution to vouch for you and open doors. You can let your product, your reputation, your individual ability and brand speak for themselves.

Consider the popular story of the woman who couldn’t get through the application process for the fast-growing tech startup AirBnB. She had a great degree, but so did all the other applicants. So she built a better signal. She researched the industry and built a basic website describing her take and how she’d add value to the company.

It turned into an internet sensation—infinitely more valuable than a generic resume listing a degree like everyone else.

LinkedIn pages, GitHub profiles for coders, personal websites, and modern communication tools make it easier than ever for young people to create value, build a network, and make it easily accessible and verifiable to the world. No longer are they confined to purchasing prefabricated credentials from large institutions.

Competition in higher education means competing ways to signal value to the world. The alternatives are limited only by imagination.

The force of government loans, grants, subsidies, and laws that artificially enhance the value of degrees, along with the force of the public religion that the college degree is the only way to a respectable, successful life, have made it hard for most to see the opportunity to create alternatives. Yet they are emerging.

Sometimes they emerge with great fanfare, like tech investor Peter Thiel’s fellowship program that pays kids under 20 $100,000 to dropout and start a company. Sometimes with less notice, like the many coding schools, online courses, and combination work/education/professional development programs.

As this proliferation of alternatives continues, it spells nothing but good for young people, employers, the economy, and yes even for some professors and universities. Really good schools that offer a truly valuable experience will thrive while colleges that function mostly as credential mills lose market share.

What’s left when the credential ceases to be the magic ticket is anyone’s guess, but we do know only those providing real value to the educational consumer will survive. That’s a good thing.