The Tipping Point for Disrupting Higher Ed


Sure, Massively Online Open Courses (MOOCs) featuring prominent professors engage large numbers of online learners from around the world. These online courses continue to gain prominence with traditional colleges, some even partnering to offer college credit for successfully completed courses. But this alignment is still tiny compared with the overall size of brick and mortar college offerings. And even through the hype MOOCs receive for offering free online college courses, the real tipping point is neither the number of free online courses or who is offering them or even the quality of the courses. The tipping point for wholesale mainstream college education disruption lies elsewhere.

Ultimately, it is employers that drive much of the education market. We spend our entire young lives in school, preparing for careers that match our talents or interests. to employers, a college degree legitimizes our preparation for a given profession, promising a standard level of competency for a career. Or at least that was true until recently. As higher education costs skyrocket, student debt mounts, and MOOCs providie college-level courses for free, a perfect storm is forming that culminates at a single point: Will employers shift from requiring college degrees to accepting certificates of completion for the same (free) college level courses?

This is the tipping point for disrupting higher education. No matter how creative traditional colleges get in trying to stem rising degree costs, maintaining goliath brick and mortar institutions requires enormous capital compared with managing some web servers and relatively few professors. And if employers start to acknowledge that the most qualified candidates might be self-motivated individuals who completed certificate courses through Ivy League MOOCs rather than traditional Bachelor of Science degrees, traditional higher education may really crumble.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a legitimate place for traditional face-to-face instruction. However, the quality of undergraduate education for many large, traditional institutions is questionable when there are hundreds of students crammed into an auditorium for general education courses. These courses can easily shift to online-only formats. However, especially at the graduate level and definitely for scientific researchers, there’s no substitute for exchanging ideas face-to-face with other scholars. And access to cutting-edge research labs and equipment cannot easily be replaced by online content.

So, as MOOCs gain credibility with employers, traditional higher education institutions whose revenue models rely on undergraduate courses to fund other things, might have to get physically much smaller. But smaller isn’t necessarily poorer. Employers still seek leaders with advanced degrees and robust professional networks. Face-to-face higher ed does these things better than anyone else. Let’s see if institutions can capitalize on this opportunity instead of fretting about inevitable changes to undergraduate education. What do you think? Is there a business model that works best for students, employers, MOOCs, and brick and mortar colleges?


Gina is an Content Marketing Manager for a large tech company and a TEDster. She's a mash-up of physics, entrepreneurship and industrial engineering and loves to write about the intersection of business, technology, and humanity. In her spare time, she enjoys organizing TEDx events and delving into quirky technology projects with her preteen son.