The burgeoning sharing economy has transformed markets such as transportation and lodging through services like Uber and Airbnb. Can it also transform higher education? The demand is certainly there: The rising cost of college, which has long outpaced inflation, makes it inaccessible to many. Meanwhile, colleges regularly lose millions in potential revenue due to excess capacity— “unfilled classroom seats” that can result from shifting demands for certain types of courses, declining enrollment, and other factors.
Anyone’s Learning Experience (or ALEX), winner of the 2016 Harvard Public Sector Innovation Award*, will leverage this excess by filling those seats with working professionals who lack college degrees and can increase their earnings through individual, in-person courses. This new online marketplace, which is preparing for a pilot launch this summer, will partner with colleges and employers to connect employees to courses that complement their line of work. “In a world where we can so efficiently fill empty seats in cars, we should also be able to fill empty seats in classrooms,” says Sergio Marrero, a co-founder of ALEX.
A movement to unbundle higher education to make it more accessible is already underway, evidenced in part by the emergence of MOOCs (massive open online courses). Marrero says he began thinking about accessibility while working with students. “I asked one student if he was excited about going to college, and was surprised when he wasn’t,” Marrero says. The student told Marrero he felt overwhelmed by the cost, the application process, and the commitment to a years-long course of study. “The student told me, ‘I wish it was easy like iTunes,’” Marrero says. “That got me thinking: If we could unbundle degree programs the way iTunes unbundles albums, what might a future ‘playlist’ for higher education look like?”
For the target ALEX users, there’s evidence that a partial or incremental postsecondary education is valuable. According to a The College Board, individuals without a degree but some college earned 14 percent more than those who only completed high school. So far, however, efforts to unbundle higher education have mostly been confined to online space, and completion rates for online courses is comparatively low, especially for MOOCs.
The ALEX platform will help users find courses that fit schedules, goals, and budgets. Enrollment comprises a few easy steps. Meanwhile, schools can monetize excess capacity and attract more prospective students. Employers can subsidize classes to develop and retain talented employees. “Partnering with educators and employers enables us to precisely map available courses with career ladders at companies,” Marrero says.
The market for higher education presents unique challenges for the sharing economy: Educational institutions tend to be highly bureaucratic, slower to make major decisions or radical changes, for example. Thus, the ALEX founders are carefully piloting and scaling their model. For their pilot launch, ALEX is partnering with Northeastern University and Newbury College, and looking for business chains that offer tuition assistance and employ a large number of workers without degrees. “We’re talking with Chipotle about a potential partnership, as one example,” Marrero says. The pilot will focus on employees in food services to start, and will expand to industries like retail, banking, and hospitality in 2017.
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*The annual Public Sector Innovation Award, launched by Leadership for a Networked World, Harvard University, and Accenture, encourages Harvard students to apply their creative energy to help solve pressing public-sector challenges and to foster the next generation of government leaders. Each year’s winner receives $10,000 in grant funding, access to Harvard and Accenture thought leaders, and incubation space to develop their project proposal. Learn more and apply at http://tech.seas.harvard.edu/harvardi3/.
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