White Paper for Network-Based Higher Ed, 5/8
An attempt to displace the Ivy League
The Moonshot Goal
This white paper depicts an alternative form of higher education that will rely heavily on people who participate in and support the world of profit-seeking businesses. The goal is to displace the Ivy League. Success will mean that
In five years, a survey will find that a majority of middle-class high school seniors and their parents will say that they are “seriously considering” an alternative to attending a four-year college
In seven years, applications for admission to Ivy League colleges will be down 75 percent from what they are today
The Ivy League exerts enormous leverage on our society. Its culture permeates government and corporations, as well as the rest of higher education, including colleges that train K-12 teachers. This culture’s ever-increasing hostility toward markets and free expression has become toxic.
It will not be easy to displace the Ivy League. It clearly passes the market test. This can be seen quantitatively in the high ratio of applications to acceptances. It can be seen qualitatively in the stress that parents and high school students feel about the need to gain admission.
The Ivy League’s strong market position is self-sustaining. The Ivy League is guaranteed to graduate capable, ambitious students, because capable and ambitious students comprise the applicant pool. And because it graduates capable, ambitious students, Ivy League graduates are sought by post-graduate programs, corporations, non-profit organizations, and governments. Because graduates are sought after, high school seniors and their parents value admission to the Ivy League. Note that this equilibrium can prevail even though the capabilities of students who attend may not be enhanced by their experience, and indeed may even be adversely affected.
The Ivy League’s standing in higher education is like Facebook’s standing in social networking. Just as Facebook need not provide an optimal experience to remain dominant in social networking, the Ivy League need not provide an optimal experience to remain dominant in higher education.
Displacing the Ivy League requires a bold approach that can overcome this strong path dependency. Trying to displace the Ivy League by starting another four-year college is like trying to displace Facebook by starting an email list.
I have not thought of a name for the educational alternative proposed here. Provisionally, refer to it as a network-based university, or NBU.
Note I am not sufficiently well-connected to lead NBU. The leadership role requires someone with more experience building large organizations and many more connections than I have.
A Network Strategy
NBU, the network-based university, will have to use the Internet and its capabilities to solve the following problems:
ensure that students do well in job placement and/or post-graduate education
enable students to learn remotely, while providing for sufficient in-person contact to bond with other students and with faculty
enable faculty and students to fashion courses with very little central direction
motivate people, especially those in the business world, to participate as faculty
NBU will replace credentials (grades and degrees) with connections that the faculty have with employers and with other faculty. By providing students with letters of introduction and letters of recommendation, faculty will propel students forward along their career paths.
Letters of introduction and letters of recommendation must be based on closely understanding the capabilities and goals of the student. Lectures and tests would be unlikely to help faculty form a high-resolution picture of their students. Instead, class sizes must be small.
The ideal format would be a small seminar that meets once a week on line, with very active student participation. Faculty will recommend content for students, including readings, video lectures, and podcasts. Students should be working problem sets, undertaking projects, and doing a lot of writing.
Online interaction is not sufficient. Students and faculty will be brought together at conferences that facilitate conversations and informal get-togethers. Each conference will last about four days, and there will be about six conferences a year. About 500 students and about 200 faculty will gather at each conference. The personal connections forged at these conferences will energize NBU students and faculty and strengthen the institutional network.
Like the Internet, NBU will have no limitations in terms of scale or scope. It will be a platform on which faculty can offer courses of their own design. Faculty will operate independently, like writers on Substack. Students will sign up for as few or as many courses as they like.
Some courses might involve mostly reading and writing. Others might be project-oriented. Course design will be up to the faculty member, with input from students.
Many of the faculty will be in business. They may teach subjects about which they are passionate but that have no connection with their jobs. Or they may teach courses that convey skills that they use in their workplace. Some of their motivation will be to participate in the network, attracting students to join their firms. Some of their motivation will be a desire to teach and to connect with young people.
Other faculty will come from academia. They will be professors from middle-tier colleges who enjoy teaching motivated students and who are disappointed with the indifference toward learning that is prevalent on most college campuses today.
NBU will initially pitch high school seniors and their parents to try it for a year before going to college. Students who find the approach suitable will continue until they no longer wish to take courses. There is no four-year endpoint. Many students will join the work force while still taking some courses. Eventually, many will choose never to attend a traditional college.
Students from around the world will be welcome. They will be expected to participate in the in-person conferences as well as the online seminars.
The students who choose NBU will be serious about learning and about career development. The young people who want to party until they get a sheepskin will go elsewhere.
Students will be characterized by a high level of intellectual curiosity and a desire to interact with professors. That describes only a small subset of the American college population, especially at large middle-tier universities. This will be a factor limiting the size of the market for an education experience that does not include sports teams, social activities, and other non-academic attractions.
Costs include faculty time and overhead. The largest overhead cost will be running the in-person conferences. Other overhead costs will include administration, payroll systems and student advising.
Faculty will set the fees for students in their courses. The amount charged will be up to the faculty member. NBU will take a small percentage of fees to help cover overhead.
Another potential revenue source to help cover overhead is corporate sponsorships. Corporate sponsors could subsidize particular students or particular courses. This would make attendance more affordable, especially for students from overseas.
Corporate sponsors could gain preferred access to the talent base of students. For example, corporate sponsors could be given tickets to the periodic in-person conferences for students and faculty, where they could engage in recruiting.
The network-based university envisioned here differs from existing attempts to use the Internet for education in three important ways.
Substituting letters of recommendation and letters of introduction for grades and diplomas. This requires small seminars, fostering close faculty-student relationships.
Having much of the faculty drawn from the business world, to ensure real-world relevance of some courses and connections to job opportunities.
In-person conferences to enable students and faculty to form friendships.
To get started, NBU will require funds from donors or investors. I am confident that we can obtain support.
What the project most needs is a leadership team that has the connections to recruit faculty who can teach a wide range of subjects and whose letters of introduction and letters of recommendation will carry weight with employers. If you find this idea inspiring, please share it, and help me find the entrepreneurs who can put in a credible effort at making it work.