Higher Education Is In Peril – And You Can Color Me Amused

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About a decade ago, I started out my sales career for a company called SCVNGR. SCVNGR was a location-based mobile game, and the company built a business model that licensed the technology to universities, museums, and Fortune 500 brands for various events and ongoing campaigns. The company eventually pivoted its business model to mobile payments, changed its name to LevelUp, and sold to Grubhub for nearly $400m years later, but for a few years at least, my job was to lead the company’s largest and most profitable vertical: higher education.

 

We had nearly 400 paying higher education customers when I led SCVNGR’s university vertical. I very much enjoyed my time working with my customers back then. I was responsible for selling a mobile game to college campuses which was used for college orientation programs, alumni weekends, student events, and even campus tours. As such, I got to work with college students and administrators who were keen on providing a fun experience on campus. I spent another year at Chegg after I left SCVNGR, and at Chegg, I sold recruitment technology to the admissions/recruitment offices on college campuses. I set a record at Chegg for any first-year sales rep.

 

During my foray in higher education, I built a solid brand for myself. I wrote often for The Chronicle of Higher Education and my writing was also featured in Mashable. Even in my early 20s, I was considered a thought leader on location-based mobile technology, and I was asked to speak at various higher education events where I served on panels or delivered my own presentations. I say all this not to be vain about my accomplishments, but actually to set the stage for what is to come in this blog. Anything and everything I have to say that is not flattering about the world of higher education is not derived from some sort of failed experience that embittered me. What you will read is just the reality of what I encountered, because I actively sought to leave that space for a reason, and it is starting to look like that decision paid dividends.

 

There were two important predictions I made back then, one of which has already come true, and the second of which we are on the cusp of realizing.

 

The first prediction I made was that location-based technology would move from being social to practical. The location-based technology du jour back then was Foursquare, an app that allowed you to “check-in” at places to show your friends where you were. Foursquare was decidedly a social app: it was kind of like Facebook, but more about the places you went to. It did not offer any real utility to people outside of the social aspect.

 

As colleges and universities nationwide scrambled to adopt some sort of Foursquare presence, I was laughed at by some higher education consultants for suggesting that people were wasting their time. And yet, it’s very possible (if not likely) that no college or university has a formal Foursquare program any more. And that is because Foursquare as we once knew it is – as predicted – a thing of the past.

What I said would happen is that location would be integral to the future of technology, as long as it served a practical purpose. Ride-sharing was one example I gave. Another example I gave was location-based dating apps. I remember giving a presentation to Emerson College students and mentioning a now-defunct app called “MeetMoi” that helped people find singles located close to them. Everyone in the room laughed and thought the app sounded creepy. Back then, it was a little creepy, because it was a novel idea. Now, apps like Hinge and Tinder are the only way most young people meet, and the way they get around is through Lyft or Uber.

 

The proliferation of location into our everyday has now become ubiquitous. Almost every single app you have on your phone has some sort of location aspect to it. My Tesla app tells me where my car is, among other things. My Facebook app allows me to tie locations to photos or to find people who are at events I am attending. My Yelp app allows me to find local restaurants and their reviews. There was once even an app that helped you find the closest bathroom. I am not sure if it exists any more, but that one could come in handy in a pinch. Location is even integral to how banks determine potentially fraudulent transactions, based on the proximity of your mobile device to where a transaction is taking place.

 

I say all this because it actually parlays quite nicely into my second prediction, which is that higher education as we know it could not possibly survive. I say that my first prediction parlays into the second because the example of my hypothesis being rejected by people who quite simply had no idea what they were talking about is one of many that reveals the hubris of many people who work in higher education and the glacial pace at which they move to adapt to very quickly changing circumstances. Case in point, by the time some of the last schools were done implementing their Foursquare program on campus, Foursquare was no longer a relevant social tool.

 

To be totally fair about prediction number two, it is one that many people have had for quite some time. Peter Thiel, for example, has been saying for about a decade that students should drop out of school to become entrepreneurs in light of what you get from a college education versus what you can get from starting a business. More recently, NYU Stern professor Scott Galloway has written quite eloquently on this subject and even appeared on CNN with Anderson Cooper to talk about how the COVID-19 epidemic is going to accelerate the pace of the death of higher education. The synopsis of Galloway’s argument is that the reason about half of colleges are making the reckless decision to open up for on-campus classes this fall is out of sheer economic necessity; he also posits that hundreds of colleges and universities will shut their doors in the next 12-24 months. I happen to be taking one of Galloway’s two-week MBA sprint courses at the moment, which is what got me thinking about this subject, but I wholeheartedly agree with him – and not because I want to pass the course.

 

There were many signs of higher education’s demise a decade ago when I was working in that space. Even back then, many schools were going through budget cuts. I remember, for example, there was a time when the state of Pennsylvania cut back dramatically on its higher education spending, which impacted the entire Penn State University system.

 

But one of the major reasons colleges and universities often face budget cuts to begin withg is because they do not allocate resources appropriately. It became readily apparent to me in my time selling to higher education administrators that very few of them came from the business world or had MBAs. Their graduate degrees pertained to the world of higher education itself. Because the people who are generally involved in making decisions for these universities do not think like businesspeople, they do not have the ruthless and cutthroat attitude that is oftentimes required to run like a well-oiled machine. Oftentimes, institutions of higher learning cave to the demands of the masses or their students, investing in initiatives that might make them look good for curing us of some sort of social evil, when in reality all they have done is appeased a handful of angry students who quite frankly lack the maturity to even be there to begin with.

 

When I say that higher education administrators do not allocate resources well, it is worth noting that higher education has also had a stigma behind it dating as long as a decade ago to be a “laggard” industry. The only other industry that I recall being as slow as higher education to adopt new technology was healthcare. Quite simply, buyers in higher education are very traditional. They often have been in the space or even at the same institution for decades, and again, because they do not think of themselves as a business, they often do the bare minimum to protect their jobs versus innovating and taking risks to advance themselves. Nowhere was this more true than when I was at Chegg selling technology to help recruiters meet students who were inquiring about them online. A majority of schools at that time were more content to continue spending money on billboard ads, airport ads, and traditional print and radio advertising. They would buy names from SAT and ACT and blast their advertising out to any student who fit a certain profile, regardless of whether or not those students might be interested in the institution. This was all back in a time where more digitally targeted marketing programs existed, too. But it was like pulling teeth to convince anyone that a seventeen year old kid who clicked on their website on the internet was a better lead than a random person who might drive by their advertisement on the highway.

 

The way I was treated as a vendor in that space was a reflection of the abysmal attitude of potential innovators in that space. I have sold into pretty much every industry you can think of: financial, insurance, healthcare, technology, non-profit, sports and entertainment, you name it. Higher education is the only vertical I have sold into where there is a complete and utter disregard for vendors. Tradeshows would segregate vendors from practitioners; if I called someone and ended up with their assistant, they would hastily ask if I was a vendor; people no-showed for appointments at an alarmingly high rate compared to other industries, seemingly with little regard for my time. It is hard to explain, but my experience with people working in higher education is that they almost did not want to be helped. There was a sense of hubris that they were the ones doing good for the world and that I was someone who was just selling them a product. The irony in all of this is that the people I was selling to were indeed salespeople themselves, trying to sell students on coming to their school. But the confrontational attitude of not wanting to be helped was something that many of my peers agreed about, and we would often shrug our shoulders and explain this away as a phenomenon that was contributing to higher education’s stigma as being behind the curve as compared to other industries.

 

An example of this hubris catching up to higher education practitioners was the widespread growth of online, for-profit universities, namely The University of Phoenix. I actually met with The University of Phoenix about a project back when I was at SCVNGR. The experience of selling to The University of Phoenix mirrored in many ways my present-day experience of selling to F500 businesses. They had an office, we met in a boardroom, the people in the room were trained marketers who understood all of the latest cutting-edge technology, and they treated me very nicely even though I was half their age and looked like it in the meeting.

 

For-profit universities are run by businesses, and they recognized a fatal flaw for the rest of higher education: the content did not need to be delivered on-campus. And surely, over the last decade, many colleges have adapted to deliver some sort of hybrid model where they monetize not only through an on-campus experience, but also through courses that can be taken online. I remember that people had such a haughty attitude though about the for-profit universities back then and scoffed at what they were doing. Were they really any different than their non-profit peers? Or were they just smarter?

 

The expansion into the online world highlights what I think is my last and most important point about how obvious it was to see the demise of higher education coming, and that is that the product has arguably gotten worse over time while the prices have only gone up.

 

I say that the product has gotten worse for a few reasons. First, it is no secret that most college campuses today are a bastion for cuddly safe spaces and the elimination of free speech. They are no longer a place where reasonable discourse can occur and where differences of thought and ideology can safely be presented for people to learn from. Diversity of thought and opinion is under fire. These are no longer places to be exposed to new ideas – they are merely places to live in an echo chamber.

 

The product has also gotten worse simply in relative terms. There is now all sorts of content that is delivered online, much of which is not even delivered by the higher education vertical itself. You can take courses or Master Classes on seemingly any subject you would like. Ask yourself a simple question: what have colleges and universities done in the last ten years to innovate and make their product better than it was before? In the same timeframe, Netflix went from sending DVDs in the mail to becoming the largest streaming platform on the planet, and Jeff Bezos went from building a startup in his underwear to being the richest person on the planet. Is it too much to ask the education vertical to step up and give us something new?

 

All the while, the cost of attending college has gone up precipitously year over year. And many of the degrees do not necessarily put its customers in a position to gain employment after college. Thinking strictly from an ROI perspective, how many people are truly willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a college education right now when all the following are true:

  1. You graduate in a mound of debt that will take years to pay off.
  2. You have a useless degree that does not really help you get a job.
  3. There are other lower-cost, more accessible opportunities either online, in trade school, or in entrepreneurship.
  4. Colleges and Universities themselves have taken stances to limit freedom of speech and coddle their students rather than hardening them for the real world.

 

Does it really surprise anyone that a product that has not improved, drowns people in debt, does not allocate resources well or understand how to treat itself as a business will fail?

 

In Professor Galloway’s article, he talks about how the fate of higher education was inevitable. To him, COVID-19 is merely an accelerant. I agree with him. Many people in our country right now are struggling financially and have to justify every expense that they have. In a time when college campuses are charging the same tuition for a watered-down online version, or recklessly inviting students to come back to a campus where anything but an opinion Antifa approves of is mocked and ridiculed, how many parents (or students for that matter) are looking at all of this and saying they think it is a great idea to go back in the fall?

 

This is a long overdue reckoning. And while I am certainly not happy to see places of learning going under, or people losing their jobs, or students losing their opportunity, I cannot think of any other way for the people who matter to get the message and to get with the program than this. And if we need to shut down hundreds of colleges and universities to provide a wake-up call to the ones who remain so that they can make much-needed changes to improve the quality of education for everyone going forward, then that is a trade-off I am happy to make.

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