College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education by Ryan Craig — A Review

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Higher education is facing a massive stormfront in the form of online learning. In the eyes of education strategist Ryan Craig, the only way most schools will be able to survive this storm is by coming “unbundled.”

Bundling is that clever marketing ploy where the seller combines different items into one package and sells you the whole bunch even if you only wanted one or two items. Sometimes customers love bundling, like a steak dinner that includes a salad, a baked potato, and iced tea. If the customer wants all the items in the bundle, that’s a great deal. In this case, bundling saves you money.

But it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes, bundling is an annoying sales trick designed to saddle you with items you don’t want and which probably wouldn’t have sold otherwise, like when your cable company makes you buy the whole sports package just so you can watch your favorite college football team.

Well, as it turns out, college is the one of the more bloated bundles most people will ever buy in their lives. By some accounts, it’s a gargantuan scam swollen to the point of explosion, overinflated by the bundling of academic needs and impractical amenities that, for most people, simply won’t bring a decent return on investment.

In College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education, author Ryan Craig explores this ominously swelling and tangled phenomenon we call “higher education.” He shows some sympathy with the cynics but, overall, he sides with the optimists. Craig argues that education is trending away from the swollen bundled beast, and is fast becoming a multi-faceted, online-friendly market of educational options that will meet potential students wherever they are willing to pay.

Says who?

Ryan Craig is speaking well within his area of expertise. He has made a career out of forecasting trends in education. He is a cofounder and managing director of University Ventures, an education-based investment firm that bridges the gap between colleges and employers through innovative modes of education. He is a regular education columnist in Forbes, Inside Higher Education, and other sites. He was also the founding director of Bridgepoint Education, one of the largest online universities in the United States. In addition, he has advised the likes of UCLA, Columbia University, and the Department of Education.

Ryan Craig, author of College DisruptedCraig has earned the right to be heard when he issues warnings about the “great unbundling.” Online education is hitting traditional education like a storm, ripping apart long-standing structures. While schools that are slow to adapt will drown in the current of this mounting storm, those that remain ahead of the curve will ride the waves to success.

The gist of Craig’s argument is that consumers are pushing education towards greater convenience, portability, versatility, and lower cost, creating a collective market pressure that challenges traditional colleges to change or die. In his own words, this text “profiles the emergence of shorter, less expensive pathways to education credentials — and the coming shift toward competency-based education and hiring.”

Chapter Critiques

To make his case, Craig lays out twelve chapters, with the first four primarily elaborating the “problems”; and the last eight chapters exploring the “solutions.” His overall argument isn’t very tightly wound; each chapter stands alone fairly well. So, the chapter summaries below should suffice to summarize the book as a whole.

Chapter 1 Bundle of Joy (pg. 1–16)

This opening chapter introduces some preliminary misconceptions regarding higher education. This chapter includes critiques about Ivy Leagues bias (a.k.a., “Ivy league myopia”), the education bubble, inflated costs, lockstep conformity of colleges (a.k.a., “isomorphism”), and the inadequacy of the four Rs (Rankings, Research, Real estate, and Rah! [i.e., sports]). Analogizing higher education to consumerism, Craig argues that it’s as if “all retail stores have decided to stock goods that only the top one percent can afford to buy. Champagne and caviar for all!” (pg. 11). In the age of online everything, this “Let them eat cake!” mentality is just begging for a revolution. Craig observes that “If colleges and universities are to avoid being replaced by some creation of Silicon Valley [online college], they’re going to have to answer the question of what students are actually learning and demonstrate how their programs benefit students.” (15)

Chapter 2 Crisis of Affordability (17–35)

Craig elaborates on the budgeting shortfall facing at least half the colleges in America. (17) A chief reason for the shortfall, he suggests, is astronomical student loan debt, a direct correlation with the fact that “higher education tuition has increased at double the rate of inflation for over thirty years. (20) The overall price of education increased six hundred percent between 1980 and 2010—more than any other major product or service.” (20) Ultimately, Craig makes the compelling case that college costs have grown at an unsustainable rate. In this climate, “for many students, fear of debt now exceeds the fear of not having a degree.” (31)

Chapter 3 Crisis of Governance (36–52)

Craig points to several different failures at the administrative level which have left many colleges ill-equipped to brace for the great unbundling. He revisits the four R’s (Rankings, Real Estate, Rah, and Research), arguing that these factors have created a distorted set of priorities, all of which drive the cost-per-student ever higher. His summary critique boils down to several leading gripes: unclear educational objectives, a model of shared governance, and a proclivity toward administrative bloat. (40)

Chapter 4 Crisis of Data (53–68)

Craig bemoans the lack of useful data for measuring the actual and tangible outcomes for schools, illustrating his point by referencing the famous book and subsequent movie, Moneyball (c.2003; 2001). Moneyball is a landmark text about how in 2002, the Oakland A’s, a small-budget major league baseball team succeeded by resorting to unconventional statistical recruitment models that consequently revolutionized the game of baseball. The A’s proved that professional baseball analysts were looking at the wrong stats. Craig argues that higher education needs a similar revolution, and that it is incumbent upon educational leaders to create meaningful analytic data for competency-based education, developed from cost considerations and employee recommendations.

Chapter 5 Finding Wonderland (69–96)

Craig evaluates the preliminary, and perhaps utopian efforts to advance education into the online world with MOOCs (massive open online courses) led by elite schools like MIT, Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton. Early soaring success was followed by a crash as students realized that these simplistic learning models may task students with a lot of work but they don’t offer real-world value. Courses don’t translate into robust resumes or new job opportunities. Schools can’t realistically issue credits for free classes and expect to survive in their current model; free education is an existential threat to most higher education centers.

Chapter 6 The Great Unbundling (97–116)

Craig argues that the great unbundling of education is sponsored in part by evolving student needs, along with the versatility, mobility, convenience and adaptability provide by the internet. His core argument here, however, is that bundling was profitable in the past for universities but has become less and less viable as a sales model. The “bundled” liberal arts degree is not efficient to produce, the customer base is not homogenous, and it does not offer many gains on simplicity. These market conditions make bundling a bad model, even if it is the traditional approach (101–103).

Chapter 7 Preparing for the Great Unbundling (117–144)

Central to Craig’s argument here is the claim that “the road to success in most jobs isn’t dependent on arriving [at the job] with any particular knowledge but rather one’s ability to interpret, sort, organize, and make sense of the information on the job.” (121) To this end, Craig outlines ten initiatives that he expects to see in colleges over the next five years that will help to facilitate this shift:

  1. “Leading colleges and universities will improve affordability by removing the question of credit transfer [from other schools] and acceptance from faculty and departments [at their own schools].
  2. Flip the classroom [having lectures online at home and “homework” administered in-class with teacher tutoring]; institute dynamic classrooms [responsive learning environments] and increase on-the-ground faculty productivity.
  3. Develop online courses priced below on-ground courses for all textbook-based large lecture classes.
  4. Shift scholarships back to need-based from merit-based.
  5. Increase outsourcing of functions that are not core strengths.
  6. Disaggregate the role of faculty to achieve development and delivery efficiencies.
  7. Migrate from a seat-time model to a competency-based model.
  8. Move online courses to a self-paced model.
  9. Innovate as much with student acquisition as with program delivery.
  10. No more trophy facilities: spending must be directed to what happens in the classroom rather than on what’s easy to admire.” (pg. 138–139)

Chapter 8 America’s Next Great Export (145–162)

Craig compares U.S. education to that of overseas competitors to show that the U.S. is still far better than the rest of the world in their university level offerings. He identifies a few shortcomings common to some overseas education markets, including irrelevant/outdated curricula, spoon-feeding, regurgitative “learning”, underfunding, and cheating. Craig argues that the problems facing American schools are more manageable by contrast. Nevertheless, Craig points to nine key obstacles to educational success in the U.S., presented verbatim below:

  1. Unsustainable cost structure driven by expenditures outside the classroom.
  2. Unaffordable tuition and fees, and uncertain return on investment given the employment market for graduates.
  3. Contributing to the general wealth gap—now wider than ever.
  4. Locking in social inequality rather than breaking it down.
  5. Arbitrary approach to rationing state subsidies.
  6. Poor job at providing students with basic numeracy and quantitative problem-solving skills.
  7. Poor job at providing graduates with career direction and a sense of how their education relates to future employment.
  8. Lack of consistent and meaningful metrics for student outcomes.
  9. General resistance to innovation. (pg. 146)

Overall, American schools can improve by exporting education instead of just trying to import students from abroad. Asian markets, in particular, offer great promise for expansion.

Chapter 9 Managing Change (163–174)

Craig lets his entrepreneurial spirit shine in his wide-eyed treatment of institutional change. He suggests that the “best way to change something in higher education is to behave as though it has always been [that way].” (164–5) This chapter is less analytic in tone than previous chapters, with Craig taking the voice of a motivational speaker addressing a room full of administrators about “managing through adversity” and “leading with humility.” (167)(171)

Chapter 10 A Tale of Two Cities (175–188)

Here, Craig extends cautious but optimistic praise for the way private universities (for-profit and not-for-profit alike) can help model viable education options for the future. For-profit online options have seen a significant decline in recent year, hitting well-known schools, including DeVry, University of Phoenix, and a dozen others. But Craig suggests that the next generation of private models may be able to forge a happy medium with their autonomy, financial savvy, and the wisdom gathering from the successes and failures of their predecessors. (185)

Chapter 11 American Hustle (189–208)

Craig cites several governmental policies that have hamstrung online education in America. Effectively, the Department of Education (ED) under the Obama administration gave license for states to issue “protectionist rules—either to generate revenue from fees or to protect their public universities from competition.” (192) This obstructionist climate has created a “blizzard of state regulatory activity” that has severely handicapped online education companies and schools who cannot keep up with obscure rules like “fire safe file cabinets,” and “duplicate paper copies” for all graded material (192). Craig is also critical of the the “credit-hour” rule which he identifies as a way to “standardize” education credits in terms of a common unit of measurement. The problem is that this model actually requires inefficiency in any instance where an online option could get the same results in less time.

Chapter 12 Humbling Unbundling (209–213)

Craig spends a few pages asserting that the Great Unbundling is already underway, and that we may end up with a two-tier system with elite schools remaining fairly intact while non-elite schools are forced to adapt for the future. (210)

Some Thoughts On Style and Substance

Overall, Craig writes with an approachable style, using just enough in-house verbiage to reflect the author’s competence in the field of education. Craig uses lots of contemporary and classic word-pictures including movie references, personal stories of his college days, and old images that help illustrate his point. The content does tend to bounce from point to point, on occasion presenting the author as something of a hyperactive child whose mind moves so fast he interrupts himself, shifting from topic to topic without losing a beat. Fortunately, this is more refreshing than distracting, preventing the author from sinking into pedantic repetition. It also avoids the slow and plodding of some of the more “academic” works in this field.

The author is also fond of statistics. And he has great hope that “Big data will make education much easier to measure and make education research more like medical research.” (66) While this is a compelling point, Craig may lean on statistics a little too much, running the risk of shoehorning subjective ideas into distorted data metrics.

Craig also shows signs of socio-political liberalism. (47, 50, 196, 212) He applauds the Center for American Progress (CAP) for their efforts to create centralized standards for college courses. (208) CAP is a known liberal-progressive group with lobbying and staffing ties to the Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns. But, from a PR standpoint, Craig’s liberal perspective dovetails well with left-leaning tendencies permeating college campuses.

Fortunately, Craig avoids heavy-handedness. Craig’s purpose is not to offer any big political statements here, or at least, not any overt ones. He has a non-partisan goal in mind. He even gives sourcing credit to Ronald Reagan with one of his famous quotes, “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’.” (190) Even critiques against the Department of Education are largely non-partisan in nature. Moreover, Craig deals in enough objective statistical data that liberals and conservatives alike should be able to chew on the numbers even when the interpretative gristle doesn’t suit their tastes.

Craig is not settling for partisan policy disputes. His goal is bigger. He is something of a statistical prophet. And this book explores his interpretation of the statistical signs. He claims—I think correctly—these signs point to a “great unbundling.” He is wise to point out that the internet has not just supplemented the classroom with new technology. The change is more drastic than that.

The internet is more like another dimension multiplied across reality. In this way, it reorients the space-time continuum allowing for education to work in places, ways, and time-frames that it never could have worked before.

If Craig is a prophet foretelling woe and destruction for “old-school” models of education, the way of repentance is competency-based education, an interlocking education model, where each subject is divided into different “competencies,” skills which any given student needs to master before moving on to the next skill. (81–84) There are well-tested manifestations of this model, most specifically the Khan Academy. Indeed, Craig says, “Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy . . . [is] the first (and still only) rock star of online education” (82).

The One World Schoolhouse book review
For more on Salman Khan, check out our review of his One World Schoolhouse here.

Craig’s insights, overall, seem valid and well informed. And yet without the teacher’s perspective swirled in, there is something missing. That said ,it is not clear that he’s operating from an underlying pedagogy (philosophy of education). While Craig is a gifted analyst, administrator, and entrepreneur, his voice might carry more weight with educators if he could show that he understands how his recommendations might be tested and translated in actual classrooms —whether physical or online classes.

Craig could help his cause by demonstrating studied consideration of the plight of educators. He seems keenly aware of the large-scale machinations involved in education. But he may struggle to earn the trust of educators in his audience by overlooking the small-scale interactions that flesh out education on the ground level. After all, education doesn’t happen at the macro-level. Numbers, projections, and big data are not education; they are about education. Education happens at the micro-level, on a small scale, every time a student learns something.

His emphasis on quantifiable data is noble. But there is a mechanistic sheen to Craig’s thinking, as if he was designing a more efficient factory. While Craig might personally have a more humanist sense of the relationship between students, educators and schools, it doesn’t necessarily come through in his writing.

Surfing a Tidal Wave

The takeaway from Craig’s work is that conventional higher education faces an ominous future in the era of online education. Perhaps a two-tiered model will rescue elite schools from the threat of change. (210) But the rest of the educational world will have to brace for the coming storm. The internet is a socio-cultural force pushing schools toward drastic survival measures. Whatever happens, we can rest assured that the educational landscape will never be the same. Craig does not have all the answers, but he has some answers, some very important answers. And colleges would do well to heed his storm warnings.

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