Don’t Think of Higher Education as a “Bundled” Product

Students taking an exam

What would it mean to “unbundle” higher education?
Image: Shutterstock

In recent years, spurred by the “unbundling” of the television and record industries, some entrepreneurs have suggested that higher education needs to be “unbundled” as well.

The concept here is that, thanks to services like iTunes and Netflix, cable subscriptions and album sales have dropped, while subscriptions to streaming services and purchases of individual songs have increased. By unbundling these services, consumers can pick and choose what they want, and ignore the media they don’t want or need.

Purveyors of online classes seem to think the same should happen to higher education. The Atlantic points out, thankfully, that this isn’t the case.

The main thrust of The Atlantic’s argument is that universities and record labels are so different that comparisons are impossible–insulting, even. After all, nobody cares about Sony; they care about the artists that Sony carries. So nobody gets excited with Sony drops a new album. On the other hand, people do care about Harvard, and, especially at the undergraduate level, students and parents choose schools based on their academic reputation, not the individual professors that work there.

One point that the Atlantic article made, though perhaps not strongly enough, is the idea that higher education is about more than technical skills or imparting specific knowledge. It’s also about opening students up to new experiences and broadening their horizons. In part, this is accomplished by having students live on campus or participate in campus culture. But more importantly, this takes the form of required courses outside of a student’s major–the dreaded “general education.”

Many people think such courses are pointless or inefficient, but educators know that learning how to think about the world in different ways is invaluable to the learning process. We know that being exposed to different ideas and cultures is essential to being a good citizen of the world. If students simply pick and choose their courses, how many will choose something they aren’t already familiar with? For all the choice, that’s likely to be a poorer education.


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