EAB's guide to higher ed disruption

Which higher education disruptors deserve our attention?

Hardly a week goes by without another prediction that higher education, like other industries, is about to be disrupted. Some believe that a university education will go the way of the newspapers, replaced by the availability of free, online information. Others envision that the unbundling of higher education will resemble the music industry. Instead of investing in full degree programs, the theory goes, students will take individual online modules, mixing and matching them like a Spotify playlist. But most new unbundled models and would-be disruptors have yet to pose a significant threat to higher education.

Start-ups are garnering more attention from investors, entrepreneurs, and academic leaders as more and more venture capital goes toward funding new higher education providers. How can universities cut through the noise to determine which new providers have the most potential to disrupt and which are still mostly hype?

Still waiting for ed tech disruption

Several years ago, most higher education innovations focused on new technologies and delivery models that promised to expand access and lower costs for students. MOOCs, the darling of 2012, promised to democratize higher education by providing free online courses to all. And MOOCs have introduced millions of students to new teachers and subject areas, all while providing new opportunities for faculty to experiment with online and hybrid learning. But recent studies of MOOCs have shown that only a small percentage of students actually complete the MOOCs they sign up for and most students who enroll in MOOCs have already earned a degree. Meanwhile, major MOOC platforms are still struggling to monetize their offerings.

More on higher ed disruptors

More recent enthusiasm for competency-based education (CBE) has touted its ability to lower costs and improve time-to-degree for students, potentially expanding access to new student audiences. However, EAB’s recent research about the CBE business model has shown that while CBE programs have admirable pedagogical goals, in practice these programs are challenging for most institutions to execute. They are expensive to build and scale and it is difficult for students to succeed in the self-paced environment of most CBE programs without significant investments in extra support. While CBE will not unseat traditional education at most schools in the foreseeable future, early adopters are laying the groundwork for the next wave of pioneers to develop more effective CBE implementation models.

New private-sector providers compete on mission and value

When so-called higher ed disruptors have not yet disrupted, it is easy to say that higher education won’t change dramatically. But new higher ed providers still have the potential to take off even after an initial round of innovators fizzle. In fact, it’s often the early innovators who pave the way for more successful start-ups later on, just as in the development of social media the collapse of Friendster preceded the ultimate success of Facebook.

How your online course development can keep up in higher ed’s changing landscape

Over the past few years alternative higher ed providers have evolved. Instead of competing with universities by offering lower-cost options, as MOOCs and CBE hope to do, these new providers compete directly with the core values of a traditional university education by offering in-person immersive learning, creating opportunities to grow personal and professional networks, and teaching a key tenet of the liberal arts—learning how to learn. Here are three new providers in the higher education landscape that EAB is watching:


  • What it is: Minerva is a start-up university based in San Francisco. Students take all of their courses online in a synchronous, seminar-style format, but live together in loft-style apartments and move to a new global location each semester.
  • Why it matters: Most of the media attention surrounding Minerva has focused on its innovative online learning platform, but its programs emphasize a global, fully residential, and immersive international experience. Minerva advertises extracurricular enrichment unique to its global locations—learning how venture capital works from a Silicon Valley start-up, for example. Instead of giving students the chance to study abroad for one or two semesters, Minerva hopes to make all four years of an undergraduate degree an international experience.

See more about Minerva's global classroom


  • What it is: Fullbridge is a company that helps students develop business skills in a short-term, boot-camp setting. Students can enroll in sessions directly through Fullbridge on their own, and some universities partner with Fullbridge to offer week-long sessions as required components of certificate or capstone programs.
  • Why it matters: Fullbridge was founded with the goal of helping liberal arts students expand their career options through concrete preparation for the working world. This programming gives students an option to gain a professional edge beyond the internship opportunities and career services support traditionally provided by universities, and gives universities the option to “outsource” job readiness to a third-party provider.

Learn more about how Fullbridge is making liberal arts alumni more "marketable"

General Assembly

  • What it is: General Assembly is a private-sector higher ed provider that offers short-term courses and bootcamps in technical and leadership skills like visual design, coding, and project management.
  • Why it matters: General Assembly offers more than just training; it creates a social community and professional network for students. It hosts events at cities across the globe, teaches students how to connect to professionals in different technical fields, and even provides networking introductions for students or alumni who are looking for a job in a new city. In addition to teaching skills, General Assembly courses emphasize learning how to learn, giving students the building blocks to develop new skills on their own and to apply them in new contexts.

Read about the role networking plays in General Assembly's programs

Looking for more?

For more analysis of the disruptive potential of higher education innovations, see our white papers on MOOCs and competency-based education.

Next, Check Out

Three Myths About Competency-Based Education

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