It should all be so different: How technology may yet restore the public’s faith in the higher-education sector

If you share my faith in the power of technology, then its apparent failure to tackle some of the deep and systemic issues in higher education comes as a disappointment.

The figures are painful to read but bear review. According to the National Student Clearing House 2018 annual report, 30.6% of students will drop out of their university or fail to graduate within six years and not enroll in another institution. Less than 50% will graduate within six years from the institution in which they first enrolled.

For adult learners and some minority groups the figures are worse. Just 30.7% of African-American students will complete their course of study at the first institution attended within six years of enrollment. That figure is 31.9% for Hispanic-American students. By comparison, in the United Kingdom in 2015/16, 80.1% of all UK first degree-seeking students graduated with a degree in 3 years.

A deeply worrying result of these failings is a loss of esteem and public trust in the higher education sector. A 2018 Pew survey found that 61% of adult Americans (73% amongst Republicans) surveyed thought the sector was headed in the wrong direction. This is all despite data that clearly points to the benefits of higher education, for both the individual and the wider society.

Within the halls of academia, the picture for colleges and universities is no less dire. Institutions are under great financial pressures, with many fighting for survival, resulting in the ending of courses and some closing their doors for good.

Despite headlines about sky rocketing fees, the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) reports that institutions are engaged in heavy discounting or using tuition fees to fund grants to freshmen and undergraduates. In 2017-18 an estimated 88.7 percent of freshmen and 79.5 per cent of undergraduates received grant aid covering more than half their tuition fees. Of those institutions that participated in the NACUBO survey, all experienced a net decline in revenue per freshman in 2017-18.

None of these problems should exist, nor would they exist in a properly functioning market-based system that fully realized the benefits of the digital age. By “market based,” I’m talking about the sound principles and dynamics behind proper functioning markets that lead to an alignment of the interests of the consumer (learners) with suppliers/providers (higher education institutions) for the mutual benefit of both.

Whatever other problems the sector faces, most stem from a failure of first principles–to match the student to the institution. If you look at the myriad of reasons why learners fail to complete their course of study almost all can be boiled down to this failure–and that includes the need for financial support.

Indeed, we have neglected the key tenet of Adam Smith’s prescription for a successfully functioning market: perfect knowledge. Buyers (learners) are unable to make truly informed decisions that reflect their specific needs and desires. Conversely, sellers (colleges) are unable to service those needs and create the varied products desired and needed by potential customers.

As an entrepreneur who has spent a good part of my career involved in the education sector, improving the function of this market and thereby helping learners and institutions has become a major preoccupation.

So what’s the solution? 23 years ago a man named Pierre Omidyar launched AuctionWeb, a website “dedicated to bringing together buyers and sellers in an honest and open way.” That website is known today as eBay.

In every industry you can think of, from watching TV via Netflix to dating platforms like, dynamic digital market places are becoming the mechanism by which people seek and consume the services they desire. But to date, everybody in the higher-education sector has completely missed this.

But the technology exists to enable all types of learners and colleges to connect at the most meaningful and individual levels. I am convinced that marketing to and enrollment of students must be based on first-person data delivered through digital market places, connecting colleges to the right-match students based on what students want to achieve and in what environment they believe they will thrive.

Thinking along these lines requires a quantum leap in the functioning of the sector. But as the statistics show it needs to be done. And the pressure to do so will only increase as the dynamic of the student market moves from school leavers to adult learners–the fastest-growing segment in the university sector. The sector needs to make that leap.

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