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A New Financial Model for Higher Education

Higher education needs a new financial model to support lifelong learning.

Photo of Matt Morava
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The terrible truth is that higher education works. It's built perfectly to serve faculty in their generation of new knowledge. Most institutions are "research" institutions and the "publish or perish" mindset is a byproduct of this mission. Students are an afterthought and teaching is a grinding task that must be completed in order to get to the real work.  

At the heart of this grande charade is the degree, a meaningless bit of paper that signifies nothing. 

A degree is earned when you've passed enough classes that comprise a curriculum. Classes are isolated singular experiences taught by a harried professor and rarely are students ask to demonstrate the integration of the KSAs taught in these classes. As a metaphor -- the degree is "Whole Foods Management" and the student took classes in, "The History of Flour in the Middle East", "Customer Service 101 and 102" and "Food Safety in 2025." Now they're trying to get on with an actual Whole Foods store and they're woefully underprepared. 

But if you can implode the degree, you free the institution to forward thinking and action. The model I'd propose is that students pay a significant one time fee up front and then yearly annual dues from that point forward. The concept of alumni disappears altogether as being a part of the "learning club" allows you to learn to your hearts content: take classes on campus or teach on campus, take a mooc or teach a mooc, network with faculty, students, and the organizations (non profit, for profit) dialed into the university and continually build your expertise and/or switch to a new field to integrate more knowledge. Basically, you can continually build your own KSA path as your career demands.  

As a real life example, I'm totally into epidemiology. I feel like there's something amazing I could do here given my background in learning & development, leadership development, and cultural understanding and yet how do I quickly pivot? Go get another degree? But if I had access to my alma mater and their network, relevant classes, and relevant faculty I could build a "mini-degree" that allows me to capitalize this passion.  

Who is your idea designed for and how does it reimagine higher education to support the needs of tomorrow?

Ideally, Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon become the universities of tomorrow. To find talent early and continually grow that talent. Universities are unlikely to let go of their "degree" granting powers until degrees are proven to be absolutely useless. But students will go to where their talents are recognized and developed successfully. The classroom with desks facing the teacher worked to prepare students for the industrial revolution, the "non-degree" prepares them for a new mutable world.

This idea emerged from:

  • An individual

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

To push back and provide guidance on these questions: Is the "country club" financial model feasible? Will degrees disappear? How do we end "alumni" as a category?

What early, lightweight experiment might you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

I love this question and I have no idea. It's a big idea. It's not just about changing curricula development or delivery methodology, it's about creating a learning club that's ongoing that flips the university model on its head. I guess a survey of some kind just to test acceptance to the concept. Students already pay "monthly dues" in the form of student debt, just not to the university. Hmm...

Tell us about your work experience:

My background is eclectic: I've been a park ranger, managed a music store, was a videographer and lightning engineer, instructional designer, trainer, learning and development guy, adjunct faculty, organizational development dude, and provider of couples coaching that morphed into executive coaching who's now way into understanding trust, specifically around health (cultural communication) and how CDC can regain trust in communities.


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Photo of Chris Eberhardt

This model reminds me a little of the old Hollywood model where actors and actresses were stuck to one studio. Maybe I'm misreading your description, but it sounds like students do not have school choice. Or is it the opposite, that you can switch back and forth as much as you want as long as you pay a fee, like buying car insurance or something. But then how do you ensure quality, etc. if students can switch back and forth as they want?

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