However, the real significance of the Google competitive threat is not in the quality of their courses or their relative inexpensiveness, rather it is in Google’s role as a leading-edge employer and their willingness to forego the ornate sheepskin that certifies completion of a “college education” as a prerequisite to entry into the working world.
Google as “instructor” may not be fundamentally different from the University of Phoenix or Southern New Hampshire University, or, for that matter, Coursera or other MOOC (“massive open on-line course) purveyor. But, Google as employer (and, by extension, other leading STEM companies and other smaller firms hiring “certifiable” talent) is a different matter.
If you are post-high school or community college, fitting in another (non-cheap) two-to-six year gig at your regional public university may not be so attractive by comparison, if (and this is key) there is a large pool of potential employers that don’t care if your certificate is signed by multiple Ph.D.s or the VP of Telecom Training at AT&T.
Whatever the values of the traditional university education, including breadth of courses and socialization, the crucial component its economic value is the fact that the certificate (i.e. diploma) comes from someplace which has been “accredited” to issue them. Universities jump through all sorts of hoops to secure/maintain their “accreditation,” but the process is redolent of the College of Heraldry in the British Empire. The accreditation institutions (a whole bureaucratic process itself) issue their educational equivalent of the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” to ensure students (and research funders) that the university meets certain standards. As a practical matter, employers rely on this accreditation to accept the diplomas issued by those institutions as the basis of hiring.
This is also important for those students going on to graduate and professional schools, but that is a relatively small group.
For a significant portion of students, particularly those at non-elite universities, all they want is to get their diploma and get out into the “real” world; the diploma is their admission ticket to a job (or a “better” job). For many, their GPA isn’t all that important. This “get by and get out” mentality was reinforced by the extra pressures of pandemic/remote learning.
So, if Google (et al.) are willing to take another admission ticket, what is it that traditional universities have to offer? What is distinctive about the college experience that justifies the extra cost and hassle? Many students (and parents) value the prestige, the liberal arts, the breadth of educational exposure, and the many aspects of socialization that occur on college campuses (e.g. sports, extra-curriculars, dorm life). Many students (and parents) value the enhanced opportunity for graduate/professional education. Google U isn’t going to directly affect them.
However, many can’t afford those things, or aren’t interested in them. So, we will have to see how many forego the traditional collegiate experience. Even those who have bought into the traditional modern mindset of “to get a good job, get a good (college) education” will have to question whether that mantra is outdated.
There isn’t (and likely won’t be) a private-sector “accreditation” agency that can provide assurance to hiring companies that the virtual certificate issued by Google U (or Health Tech Training Institute, or other groups) will be worth the (non-) paper it is printed on, so things are likely to be messy for quite a while. But the nature of disrupting traditional business models is such that we shouldn’t look for replicating or just tweaking those past models. There are sure to be failures, as the MOOC-mania of a few years ago demonstrates.
On the other hand, the bourgeoning disruption of the hiring business (e.g. Linked-In, Indeed, Monster) shows that this component of the human supply chain can change. It can also provide an accelerator for accommodating this shift. A hiring manager will need only check the “Google U” box on the “acceptable educational background” box on the hiring intake template to open this up.
This development does not portend the end of traditional education. As I noted above, there are many segments for which either the experience or the outcome is worthwhile. Still, if even a modest portion of the student body pool evaporates (as it were)—say, 20%—then the economic impact on certain groups of schools, particularly non-elite public universities, could be significant, especially given their less than rosy financial outlook generally.
From an institutional perspective (as compared with the student’s concern or societal perspectives), Google U and the erosion of the accreditation monopoly raise the question of whether these schools could develop alternative modes of instruction and certification. Here, the bureaucratic and institutional constraints (e.g. legislatures, unions, pedagogical open-mindedness) make it unlikely that radical and innovative ideas could be implemented at least in the short-to-medium term.
Google, social media, Uber, mobile phones, Tesla—just a short list of disruptors whose shock waves are still spreading and whose social impacts are profound. In the world of education, technology has been seen as a disruptor as well, but one whose impacts are being incorporated into existing models with no more than the expected hiccups and stumbles. The attack on accreditation, however, goes to the heart of the university’s role in 21C US society. It will not be a challenge easily met.