How Boundaries Between Colleges and Companies Will Continue to Blur

Digital Learning

How Boundaries Between Colleges and Companies Will Continue to Blur

By Jeffrey R. Young     Jul 10, 2017

How Boundaries Between Colleges and Companies Will Continue to Blur

This article is part of the guide: Thought Leaders Discuss The College (And Classroom) Of the Future.

Some employers are starting to focus more energy on offering educational benefits to their employees, while colleges are struggling to respond to the growing interest by students in helping them land a job. A new center at Northeastern University sits at the intersection of these two areas—called the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy.

Its director, Sean Gallagher, thinks it’s time for college leaders and employers to sit down and collaborate, even as he stresses that colleges need to assert their broader educational goals (such as preparing people to continue learning beyond just the skills of today). EdSurge sat down with Gallagher during the ASU+GSV Summit in May to learn about why he predicts that when it comes to education, the line between colleges and companies will continue to blur.

The conversation is part of our Thought Leader Interview series on the future of education. Below is an edited and condensed version of the conversation, or watch the complete interview.

EdSurge: You recently tweeted that you’re interested in blurring the boundaries between traditional higher education and trainings that happen in the workplace. Why do you think that’s a good thing?

Gallagher: I began my career analyzing [the education sector]—it was, okay, we’re tracking venture capital deals. “Is that one direct-to-consumer? Is that really an education business? Is that a publisher?” And you sort of put things in categories. We have higher education—it’s a major sector. And we have K-12. But then there’s also this segment that’s always been adjacent that used to be called corporate training. Now folks are talking about it more like “enterprise learning and development,” or “enterprise talent.” That’s starting to converge with higher ed. And then within higher ed, the major themes are things like lifelong learning, professional education, new forms of credentialing. It’s really breaking down the boundaries what we classically thought of as one sector or the other.

You look at MOOCs...MOOCs were initially a higher-ed story, and higher ed was going to be disrupted, and our institutions were going to be sort of burned to the ground. And then the MOOC providers themselves started working with colleges and universities. Many of them have pivoted toward a more corporate-focused business model—a more credential-oriented model, and so it’s all beginning to overlap. And I think it will be 5, 10 or 15 years until aspects of this ecosystem are sorted out, but it makes for a really exciting time now to get the IBMs and healthcare companies and hotels and others at the table with college and university leaders, technology leaders, and so on.

Your new center has “talent strategy” as part of its name. Is that what you mean by talent strategy?

Talent strategy is meant to encompass both talent acquisition, which is hiring, and talent development, which is learning and development. So my center’s focus is about the future of higher education business models and programmatic innovations and themes and policy issues. And we’ll be bringing the two together: providing an employer voice in higher ed, and also being an academic voice in that talent and learning community that’s largely for-profit companies and the HR functions.

Yet I know when I talk to faculty on campuses, there’s a lot of worry that the corporate voice is already plenty present in higher ed from their view. I’m wondering how you temper professors’ skepticism of companies. How do you respond to that critique that higher ed is becoming too corporatized or too focused on outcomes designed for employers?

Yeah, it’s a huge issue, for sure. It’s a cultural issue, and so you know the solutions aren’t easy or obvious. There’s a lot of tension in the system between liberal arts and technical training. So classically you have academia sort of disparaging the involvement of corporations and market-based principles, and you have the rise of new models of institutions, new technology firms, and new partnerships over many years now to where it’s much more accepted.

I remember nearly twenty years ago when I started in this field, [when] talking about marketing and higher education [was looked down on]. There’s been a shift—a little bit more of a welcoming of partnerships with outside providers.

When you look at jobs that’s something a little bit different. All the public-opinion surveys show how people are voting with their feet. Students and parents and professionals, when they enroll, 90 percent are focused on job outcome. So the system has to adapt to that.

But we have to be very careful as a society about not getting too specialized, not getting too proprietary. I mean we could have a lot of magical, perfectly efficient answers if we just sort of skilled people up in a short-term program and got them ready to code in a certain language, or do Python scripting. But that’s actually not going to take you very far once things change—and that’s where degrees come in as something that’s broader and longer lasting.

I’m imagining if we’d had all learned FORTRAN when that was hot, and that’s all we knew.

Right, that was really in demand in 2000.

Has your outlook changed at all since the Trump administration has come in? Does that shift things for you in the way you think about some of these bigger problems?

I’m not based in D.C., but I’m certainly following what’s going on in that world, and I confess it seems like there’s a lot of uncertainty. If anything it seems like if you look at the orientation of the President, he ran as a business-oriented candidate, and I would think that’s very encouraging for startups, investors, and entrepreneurs in terms of an openness in terms of how regulation works—and a focus on taking away regulatory barriers and innovation. But at the same time, with the last administration being there for eight years, we [knew what to expect]. Now we’re at a pivot point.

There was a big announcement recently that Purdue University is essentially acquiring Kaplan University for a dollar and creating a new type of public university. What do you make of this? And does it speak to something bigger going on that we might see more of?

It’s a shift for [the for-profit education] sector where it feels like Kaplan has essentially determined that rather than owning and operating a university entity, that the future of business in this domain is services, a long-term contract, sort of repositioning our assets.

For me, if you look at how it’s being set up, it really connects to some trends and big questions about governance. How do we structure higher-ed institutions? How do we structure partnerships to be nimble, to have quality control, to meet different regulatory constraints and standards. The reason people are talking about it is not just because it’s so unique and massive and headline grabbing, but there’s a lot of really important policy and strategic and operational issues that are wrapped up in it. And it represents a new model where you have a traditional higher-ed institution that’s said, ‘We need a different kind of entity to serve this market, and we don’t feel that we have time to build it on our own.” It’s kind of a build or buy decision. And they decided to buy.

[Audience question] There’s definitely sort of a doomsday or gloomy outlook for the future horizon of higher ed, given what’s happening around it with a lot of these mergers and companies like you mentioned. I’d like to hear what’s the one clear opportunity that presents itself given all that change? What’s the main opportunity for institutions?

Partly I think it’s the professional education domain and modularizing and unbundling our higher education offerings and serving new markets. The classic and most recent playbook that I think still has some running room is to go online. With online degrees, to go international and global. International student recruiting. We’ll see how that plays out but the early indicators are not especially good.

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