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The Arms Race in Technology Education: Smart HigherEd Partnerships and the Code Academy

Through my work in student success at a higher education research, technology, and consulting firm, I see and feel the pulse of higher education in the practice and influence on their policies, programs, and purse-strings every day. Universities are feeling declining enrollments,  increasingly more diverse student populations, unsustainable financial aid practices, and the value of college being brought into question through massive student loan debt, all of which have placed a premium and focus on quality education at scale while maintaining university enrollment by retaining students.  With my work in the growing technology arm of the firm, I find myself following closely the trends at the intersection of education and technology.

I would go so far as to say that innovations in technology (specifically the delivery of education in tech) will only place more pressure on universities to evolve, noting that economic trends and industry demands are likely to continue to create exert pressure on traditional higher education models.  In fact, in October the Department of Education announced a pilot partnership with “non-traditional providers” of post-secondary education, stating:

As part of ED’s experimental sites authority under HEA, EQUIP will accelerate and evaluate innovation through partnerships between colleges and universities and non-traditional providers of education, such as intensive “boot camps” building skills in particular fields, specific programs awarding certificates aligned to employer needs, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Eligible programs will lead to a degree or certificate, build students’ transferable academic credits, and provide students with the ever-changing skills they need for today’s economy. The experimental sites authority allows the Secretary to waive certain provisions regarding federal financial aid in order to improve the results achieved with federal student aid dollars. (Source: DOE Blog, Homeroom)

While in many ways this feels like the most divisive approach to supporting alternate forms of education, it also serves as a signal of things to come– federal pressure on higher education to consider more innovative, collaborative approaches that are skills-based, and economically driven.

In fact, some universities are already ahead of this curve, with SNHU Sandbox Collaborative positioning  central questions of their work on partnerships and “immersive learning,”: 

  • How can we better partner with government, business and industry to find solutions to the country’s most pressing challenges in higher education?
  • How do we participate in building the next generation of performance-based assessments and immersive learning environments? (Source: NextGen Learning)

In fact, SNHU has already begun taking steps in the direction of formalizing these types of partnerships.

Others, like General Assembly, are subtly taking note.  What’s more, visionaries in higher education like Arizona State University are formalizing tech-based partnerships like the Global Freshman Academy with edX, “a first-of-its-kind program that offers a unique entry point to an undergraduate degree” (Source: ASU.edu).  And Apollo Education Group, the holding company of the University of Phoenix, is betting on Greenville, SC based code academy, The Iron Yard.

As private/public partnerships continue to become more commonplace, might there be a day when the code academy/highered partnership reflects the holistic education that has reinforced the value of the liberal arts?  With web and software developers, system analysts, and administrators occupying 4 of the top 10 most in-demand jobs of 2016 and growth projections from the Bureau of Labor statistics bullishly projecting demand for software developers ranging from 28% to 32% (depending on the type of software development), it’s a smart bet that we’d see partnerships grow, especially as recently noted by Forbes, liberal arts degrees are counted among “Tech’s Hottest Ticket.”  In a space where curriculum and job placement rates are the often touted differentiator, this point can’t be understated.

That said, in many ways, this isn’t a completely new idea– community partnerships have been a growing part of a universities local economic development and community engagement strategy.  My fear, however, is the saturation in the market as both higher education and tech begin to independently throw resources into the space.  With tech incubators, accelerators, code academies (or a hybrid), alongside co-working spaces and the culmination of all of the above, the start-up conception of this model is becoming more formalized across major markets.

However, as more and more universities launch “innovation centers” like the one at Michigan State University, I’m concerned higher educations’ investment in infrastructure over true innovation in the forward-thinking models in this space will be a missed bet.  As a result, the gray area in between ensures that the fast-paced innovation found in tech startups, and the proven student development and support models of higher education are overlooked in the process, hurting the fruits of both industries attempts to replicate and produce of successful characteristics of their counterpart.

One thing’s for sure- the innovative university, and the smart code academy will begin to think more and more strategically about formal partnerships with one another.  At least with so many code academies in the arms race for scale and entry into new markets throughout the United States, that’s my big prediction in higher ed across 2016.

What do you think?

UPDATE: 6/29/2016: Clinton introduces her plan for tech and higher ed: “The plan proposes $10 billion in federal funding (a significant amount in tight budget times, no matter who wins the election) for students to enroll in vetted boot camps, coding academies, massive open online courses and other programs run by alternative education providers, as well as providing unspecified rewards for colleges that accept those programs as credit toward graduation,” says Inside Higher Ed