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American Enterprise Institute Has a New Idea for Training: Have the USER Fund it With Government Loans

September 3, 2015

Michael Horn and Andrew Kelly, a part of Clay Christensen’s Institute, propose a new way for individuals to get the job training they need: unbundling of post secondary education. What is unbundling and how does it work? Their introductory paragraph in the Executive Summary of a report they wrote for the American Enterprise Institute offers this overview:

In the face of increasing costs and lackluster outcomes, traditional higher education is under increasing pressure to prove its value proposition. Meanwhile, new providers have “unbundled” the components of a postsecondary degree or certificate by offering stand-alone courses or sequences of courses, targeted job training, and assessments and certifications, often at much lower cost than existing institutions. These models cannot deliver all of what a traditional college or university does, but they can provide affordable, flexible, and customizable opportunities to learn.

There is something appealing about providing prospective employees with the specific training they need to enter a particular job, but “unbundling” is a clear break from the traditional method that was used a generation ago and an implicit adoption of the notion that college should prepare one for entry into the workplace, a political idea that is a clear break from the traditional idea of what constitutes a meaningful college or university education.

A generation ago, when my father worked for DuPont, one of his assignments was sales and management training. He was responsible for teaching liberal arts majors and engineers the ins and outs of sales and for teaching aspiring managers the skills they would need to oversee employees. In the early 1980s (as I recall) that job disappeared and was replaced with contracted trainers who offered the programs formerly offered by staff members.

During my generation, another shift has taken place. Corporations who used to offer training in the products they sell and the methods they supported have decided to narrow their focus when they hire and if training is required they expect the employee to do that training on their time and, in some cases, on their dime. They no longer see value in offering training because the employee with exceptional skills is unlikely to remain with them and the one with adequate skills does not warrant the corporate investment.

Now it appears that corporations have decided it is no longer necessary to hire college graduates. Instead they can hire individuals on contingent contracts who take a series of unbundled courses that meet their needs at the time they are hired… and if those needs change, the employees can look elsewhere for work. Oh… and if the employees can’t afford to enroll in the unbundled courses, no problem! They can get a government loan to help them!

Horn and Kelly make the process described above sound different and much more appealing… but after all is said and done if the unbundling they envision is put in place the traditional liberal arts education will disappear except for the noblesse oblige and the worker bees will be in debt to either the government or investors for their entire lives.

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