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Will bootcamps and other last-mile providers disrupt higher education?

Ryan Craig, an investor and writer thinks so. His most recent book, A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College, makes a compelling case that the disruption is already underway.

As the person who likes to be ahead of the curve on forecasting disruptive innovations in education, reading the book caused me to write that “A New U is the book I wish I had written.”

But disrupting traditional colleges and universities is a tall order. For bootcamps to do so, they will have to do more than initially serve students who are not being served by traditional higher education with a more affordable, convenient offering that is perceived as primitive and with a technology enabler that allows them to improve even as they make money and don’t cause the majority of traditional colleges and universities to compete directly. After establishing this foothold, they will have to go “up-market,” and serve more of higher education beyond technology and an on-ramp into a career.

Against that backdrop, Richard Price and Alana Dunagan recently published an important paper, “Betting on bootcamps: How short-course training programs could change the landscape of higher ed,” that outlines five different scenarios for the future of bootcamps. Parsing these scenarios helps provide a window into whether and how bootcamps will—or will not—disrupt higher education.

Scenario 1: In the first scenario they present, bootcamps get stuck and fail to disrupt higher education. As Price and Dunagan note, even if an upstart provider properly adopts a disruptive stance, that strategy leads only to 37% of market entrants establishing a successful growth company, according to Clayton Christensen’s seminal book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. Although that rate of success is more than 6 times better than a startup that chooses to compete head-on with incumbents, it’s hardly a guarantee of success. In particular, the authors note that there are several things that could limit the growth of bootcamps, from employers not buying into the bootcamps being unable to serve new fields beyond technology.

Scenario 2: Democrats and Republicans alike are expressing interest in extending federal dollars to bootcamps in an effort to have them serve low-income students. As Price and Dunagan wrote, accessing federal dollars could either incentivize bootcamps to chase enrollments regardless of outcomes—which would likely hurt bootcamps odds of disrupting higher education in the longer run—or it could represent a place to experiment with new funding models focused on outcomes that could set bootcamps on an exciting and expansive trajectory. Policy wonks beware.

Scenario 3: One way bootcamps could serve wider swaths of the market is by expanding into lifelong learning—that is, they create an organization that not only helps equip people with the skills for a first job in a career, but then continues to serve them throughout their careers. Taking this tack could also help students build the conceptual foundations that some worry graduates of bootcamps don’t have. For this approach to work, Price and Dunagan argue that employer partnerships around upskilling employees that allow bootcamps to reduce acquisition costs will be critical so bootcamps can preserve and grow profit margins. I can imagine a second way that bootcamps could make this model work, as they become a one-stop education shop to serve their alumni and grow with them over time.

Scenario 4: The flip of scenario three is a scenario in which bootcamps start educating employees in fields outside of technology where there is clear employer demand and a shortage of labor supply. Moving outside of technology could be messier because the skills at the heart of successful employees aren’t always so clear, the authors wrote—but for those bootcamps that can master it, the upside could be tremendous.

Scenario 5: A combination of the above scenarios occurs in which bootcamps achieve breadth and depth and disruption ensues. Price and Dunagan paint a grim picture of what disruption might look like for traditional colleges and universities, which would unfold gradually. Consistent with research from my forthcoming book, Choosing College, the authors suggest that there would likely continue to be some demand for a residential college experience. They provocatively suggest, however, that in this scenario “this experience will no longer reside in the public conscience as the default college experience” but instead as “a particular offering in a larger, more modular and unbundled higher education system whose focus is on helping learners earn and learn, as opposed to the existing pattern of learn and then later, maybe, earn.”

It’s a provocative vision and a compelling roadmap of what has to occur if bootcamps are to disrupt traditional colleges and universities, that sets up a clear set of road signs to watch to see if bootcamps are indeed going to make a run at disruption.

Michael Horn is a co-founder of and a distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.

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