Partner or “Prey?” Higher Education When Big Tech Comes Calling

Illustration by Jose-Luis Olivares / MIT

Several months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Scott Galloway–an NYU Stern School of Business faculty member and Silicon Valley entrepreneur–participated in an interview for New York Magazine. As universities across the U.S. scrambled to adjust teaching, research, and outreach to comply with public health guidelines, Galloway described his prediction for what this watershed moment in higher education would lead to. The compulsory transition to online education and economic fallout among universities that could no longer command healthy enrollments at exorbitant tuition rates for a “dramatically less compelling product offering” would prompt Big Tech to step in.[1] 

“The post-pandemic future [. . .] will entail partnerships between the largest tech companies in the world and elite universities. MIT@Google. iStanford. HarvardxFacebook [. . .] These partnerships will allow universities to expand enrollment dramatically by offering hybrid online-offline degrees, the affordability and value of which will seismically alter the landscape of higher education.”

Walsh, The Coming Disruption.

While the reduced cost and expanded access to university education would benefit students enormously during this period of skyrocketing student loan debt and continually constricting acceptance rates, this new paradigm would also present new challenges. By considering the strengths, shortcomings, and omissions in Galloway’s vision, this post aims to sketch some of the tensions and opportunities we might anticipate should this speculative model come to pass.

What are the factors that would motivate higher education to partner with FAANG?[2] Galloway notes diminishing enrollment and consequent revenue shortfalls. His estimate of the hit to enrollment (10-30%) in the wake of COVID-19 would prove overblown, however. Research conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education revealed that Fall ‘20 enrollment dropped 2.5% on average, with the most acute impacts seen among community colleges (-7.5%) and international students at the undergraduate level (-5%).[3] These impacts–while not nearly as pronounced as Galloway predicted–are still concerning, particularly considering universities’ efforts to foster global education in an era of increasingly isolationist U.S. foreign relations. How could Big Tech’s expanded role in academia strengthen schools’ engagement with international students? With online education eliminating geographic impediments to learning, some of the only barriers remaining would be broadband access and state restrictions (i.e. censorship).

An expanded number of student matriculants abroad isn’t the only change we’d see in Galloway’s brave new world. “[T]he top-20 universities globally are going to become even stronger. [. . .] [U]niversities Nos. 20 to 50 are fine. But Nos. 50 to 1,000 go out of business or become a shadow of themselves.”[4] If things indeed played out this way, what would become of the shuttered brick-and-mortar campuses? How would alumni be affected by mass closures of their alma maters? The greater the number of closed universities, the lesser the impact to graduates, I imagine, as the experience–widely-felt–would carry less of a stigma. But this scenario also rules out the possibility of resourceful universities establishing cross-sectoral partnerships with organizations outside of Big Tech, which nonetheless enable them to remain viable. For example, what’s to prevent a network of community colleges joining forces with a multisite hospital system to enhance the educational offerings for nurses in training, while at the same time ensuring the schools’ solvency? This type of ingenuity at the hyper local level may also allow universities to emerge from the pandemic period stronger and more agile.

Among the drawbacks of this system, the loss of community that’s typically built on residential campuses ranks among the highest on Galloway’s list. The entrepreneur laments the end of the “safe” environments that colleges provide for students to grow emotionally, socially, and civically. But might this be a blessing in disguise? Many have decried the university “bubble” for how it insulates privileged students from community, social responsibility, and, in turn, adulthood. It’s worth asking how a move to more robust online education could benefit students by embedding them more fully in life beyond the campus walls.

Shifting focus to Big Tech, why would such companies pursue the prospect of partnering with elite universities? Galloway argues that it isn’t so much a question of desire as it is necessity. “Big-tech companies are about to enter education and health care in a big way, not because they want to but because they have to.”[5] For companies to increase revenue and dramatically raise their stocks’ valuation for shareholders, the Silicon Valley expert explains: 

“[Y]ou have to go big-game hunting. You can’t feed a city raising squirrels. Those big-tech companies have to turn their eyes to new prey, the list of which gets pretty short pretty fast if you look at how big these industries need to be in that weight class. [. . .] [T]he list is government, defense, education, and health care. People ask if big tech wants to get into education and health care, and I say no, they have to get into education and health care. They have no choice.”

Walsh, The Coming Disruption

I find it distressing (albeit probably apt) that Galloway characterizes universities as “prey” relative to tech giants. This moniker notably strays from the preceding descriptions that suggested collaboration. In such an arrangement, what would universities sacrifice in terms of autonomy and self-governance? For example, what role and function (if any) would university trustees serve, particularly at public universities? Addressing these questions in practice would be fraught in the best of times, let alone during the present moment of Congress’ emboldened antitrust oversight of FAANG and increasing partisanship in universities’ governing boards.[6][7] 

Considering colleges’ trusteeship raises an inevitable question: where is government in all of this? In response, Galloway offers a stirring illustration of the democratic illegitimacy baked in to such partnerships:

“When the government isn’t able to bail out America, billionaires step in. But it always comes at a price. Those people become largely untouchable, and they can’t be removed from office. Right now, we’re in a situation where it’s no longer NASA putting us on Mars or the CDC testing us for antibodies. It’s Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. [. . .] We’ve defunded government and made these people wealthier than most governments. They’re not elected and they get to decide who gets a COVID test, and they get to decide who gets to benefit from the technology that might emerge from putting a man on Mars. I think Jeff Bezos is going to offer the COVID-19 test as part of Prime membership. I think that’s where we’re headed. [. . .] It’s kind of scary to think that the University of California used to be relying on the generosity of California taxpayers and the vision of the regents of UC. And it might end up that they rely upon the generosity of Satya Nadella or Tim Cook.”

Walsh, The Coming Disruption.

I share Galloway’s concerns with the threats this trend could pose to higher education and society at large. In the case of public institutions, how would we establish and maintain checks on embedded private interests to ensure that those schools deliver on their service-to-all mission? This strikes me as a critical opportunity to establish new lines of accountability to community stakeholders, similar to those instituted by companies that have earned B Corporation certification.[8] Any adaptation and application of this model to academia would require more legal “teeth,” however, recognizing that B Corp status serves primarily as a mechanism for branding.   

It’s heartening to consider the broadened access that Galloway’s model could offer, particularly as universities celebrate exclusivity in the admissions process. “[W]e’re luxury goods,” he opines. “We get a lot of ego gratification every time our deans stand up in front of the faculty and say, ‘This year, we didn’t reject 85 percent of applicants; we rejected 87 percent!,’ and there’s a huge round of applause.”[9] Denial of access as an indicator of prestige compromises universities’ public mission. But just as many companies offer “premium status” to those willing to pay higher membership fees, what safeguards would higher education need to put in place to prevent a new caste system–premised on those who are(n’t) able to pay for a better “product”–from being erected in this growing domain of online education? “More kids are going to get into great schools,” Galloway maintains. “But just like any other space big tech enters, there’s going to be a reduction in humanity.”[10] 

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. Student affairs and human resources, reimagined, may be well-positioned to continue to cultivate “humanity” in academia. Same goes for faculty, armed with new pedagogical methods to make instruction differentiated and compassionate. Accomplishing these things and more will require close attention to how dynamics are changing in academia, creativity in crafting novel solutions, and a firm commitment to the time-tested aims of higher education.

Notes

[1] Walsh, J. D. (2020, May 11). The Coming Disruption. New York Magazine.

[2] Fernando, J., & Boyle, M. J. (2020, July 18). FAANG Stocks. Investopedia. Retrieved October 25, 2020, from https://www.investopedia.com/terms/f/faang-stocks.asp#:~:text=FAANG%20is%20an%20acronym%20referring,(formerly%20known%20as%20Google)

[3] June, A. W. (2020, September 24). Show more sharing options A First Look at Fall Enrollment Shows a 2.5% Dip Among Undergraduates. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

[4] Walsh, The Coming Disruption.

[5] Walsh, The Coming Disruption.

[6] Kang, C., & McCabe, D. (2020, October 6). House Lawmakers Condemn Big Tech’s ‘Monopoly Power’ and Urge Their Breakups. The New York Times.

[7] Ellis, L., Stripling, J., & Bauman, D. (2020, September 25). Partisan College Governance: 5 Takeaways. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

[8] B Lab. (n.d.). Certified B Corporation. Certified B Corporation. Retrieved October 26, 2020, from https://bcorporation.net/

[9] Walsh, The Coming Disruption.

[10] Walsh, The Coming Disruption.

3 Replies to “Partner or “Prey?” Higher Education When Big Tech Comes Calling”

  1. Hello Jon,

    Thank you for wring about the pressure for Higher Education to shift to Mass Online Courses. I have long heard of the benefits of online courses, larger enrollment, potential for lower cost, greater efficiency. It is that last one that concerns me. I have been working in or studying Higher Education and Student Affairs for over five years now. I have hard the arguments that student support services are unnecessary and that higher education should be more open to online streamlined educational options. Indeed, their is a market for this kind of education. However, students in online programs generally do not have access to student support services.
    The filed of Student Affairs in the United States is less then 100 years and was the replacement from a time when faculty simultaneously completed all of the roles within the university. For generations researcher and practitioners have studied student development, ways of knowing, and behavior in a effort to encourage student success. I wonder if the shift to mass online is in favor of the old system. Or and probably more likely, is the idea that a shift to online would dissolve student support services. But would students really be served better without these services ?
    I would suppose that offices like Admissions, Financial Aid, and Academic Advising would be too essential to remove. However, offices like Student Engagement, Dining Services, Housing and Residences Life, Counseling and Health Services, and many others would be dissolved. Many for-profit online colleges do not offer these services to their students and are not likely to has assessments teams examine general themes about the needs of the student body. I have great concerns that a loss in these services will crease a spike in drop out rates. Students are so much more then consumers of classes, they need support and challenges to develop as independent creators of knowledge.Online schools systematically fail to grasp this concept and thus they fail to serve their students. It is not enough to simply provided classes at low rates, there must also be a robust student support system.

    Best,
    Kuneyl

    Like

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your perspective on this, Kuneyl. I think you raise a really vital, often overlooked question of the role (if any) of support services in an era of increased online education. I wonder what forms such services could take? Counseling telehealth? Dining deliveries? I appreciate you posing this question and eagerly look to how higher ed will address this.

      Like

  2. Hello, Jon,

    My concern of Big tech entering higher ed is that it would become even more utilitarian. They have no interest in paying for general education requirements (liberal arts curriculum). As a result it is not only “reduction in humanity”, but an army of technocrats.

    Like

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