The Intersection of Higher Ed and Hiring: Q&A with Sean Gallagher

Dr Sean Gallagher is the Chief Strategy Officer for Northeastern University’s Global Network. Sean is a nationally recognised expert with more than 15 years of experience in strategy and innovation in higher education. His first book, “The Future of University Credentials: New Developments at the Intersection of Higher Education and Hiring,” was published in 2016.


KH: If you publish a book in 2016 that deals with the relationship between higher ed and hiring, I would imagine that you find yourself invariably wading into the headline that’s been bouncing around for the past couple of years: that higher ed is no longer the great return on the investment it was once – at least in terms of employability. What does the research tell us?

SG: On average, college is absolutely worth the investment. In fact, of any investment one can make, it has one of the highest rates of return – incidentally that’s even more true in today’s low–rate world. Yet it’s key to remember any calculation of “return” depends on the inputs – and it matters tremendously what you study, which school you earn a credential from, and how much you spend or borrow. Historically I don’t think students, families, politicians, etc. thought critically enough about that, because the train that is our existing system just keeps moving. What people have increasingly been asking is, are we reaching a breaking point. There are certainly hundreds of mediocre institutions and programs out there, many of them charging too much, and it’s appropriate to get serious about outcomes and costs. But on the whole, the economic data – tens of millions of data points, too – is irrefutable. Employers continue to demand and hire more people with college degrees, and they pay them substantially higher wages.


At the core of my research is interviewing actual employers. Given the headlines that have dominated the higher education media – and even the global business media – you would think employers would say that degrees are useless, that they’re doing away with them in hiring, investing in microcredentials, and only hiring from coding bootcamps. Indeed, degrees are not perfect and are not always the answer, and there’s plenty of inequity in how our system, our marketplace works – but it’s the very rare employer that is not demanding more college graduates, escalating its hiring requirements, or trying to skill up its existing workforce.

KH: That sounds about right. But at the same time, the nature of work is undergoing substantial modifications. And education has always followed the demands of labour, albeit imperfectly.

SG: We’re at an inflection point in a structural economic evolution and a series of fundamental changes in society that have been playing out over many decades. I’ll focus on the U.S., but it’s a similar situation worldwide. 30 or 40 years ago, you could earn middle-class wages and live a fairly comfortable life with only a high school diploma. That was in a more production-focused economy. Beginning in the 1980s and then accelerating in the 1990s, economic growth became dominated by knowledge work. That requires – or at least favors – higher levels of education. Bachelor’s degrees grew to become the ticket to the middle-class workforce. Economists such as David Autor at MIT and others have shown that the workforce has become highly polarized. The better educated are pulling ahead, while those without college education – and especially completed credentials – are falling behind. We can also see this in the polarization in our political dialogues, and the discussion about income inequality and if capitalism is working. Meanwhile, the cost of higher education has risen, and borrowing to fund it has certainly gone up dramatically – and this elevates the scrutiny on is the return worth the investment.

I think some of the crispest work that’s been done on this recently is by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Jaison Abel and Richard Dietz (see Do the Benefits of College Still Outweigh the Costs? andAre Recent College Graduates Finding Good Jobs?). What’s interesting is I’ve seen one their statistics cited constantly as evidence that there’s a crisis in terms of higher education and how it relates to the job market: that 44% of recent college graduates are “underemployed,” – that is, working in jobs that do not “require” a college degree. That’s not a good statistic, but they show that rate is fairly typical for the historical pattern; spiked due to recent recession; and is, in fact, lower than the rate after the 1990 recession. Yet, the underemployment rate has indeed been rising since around 2000. That’s also when the “college wage premium” flattened out: the wage premium that you earn by completing a degree is right at historical highs, but it’s no longer moving upward like it did in the ‘80s. Interestingly, the premium for advanced degrees has grown – but it’s stayed flat for the bachelor’s. So we’re in a situation where a bachelor’s degree is no longer about “getting ahead” and instead it is many times the price of admission to the professional workforce.

KH: Assessment of learners and learning is one of the connecting points between higher ed and labour. During the last couple of years, we’ve seen a dramatic climb in the interest of higher ed in competency-based education. If it’s taken seriously, CBE could provide employers and other gatekeepers with a far more detailed and comprehensive picture of a person’s abilities. But is this the kind of information that employers want? Are they in a position to make use of it?

SG: The marketplace is definitely trending toward more transparent documentation of learning outcomes and graduates being able to digitally present employers with their skills and capabilities. This is a dominant theme that cuts across many segments of the market and institution types – everything from online microcredentials offered by non-institutional providers, to the traditional undergraduate experience, and professional master’s programs from elite universities. “Badges” for example can be thought about as more micro-level illustrations of the competencies gained in a program – a complement to rather than a substitute for a degree.

I like to think of competency-based education in its simplest sense, as a philosophy in which the educational outcomes are purposefully aligned with specific skills and competencies. For many, the word “competencies” evokes the vocational and technical skills, and thus it gets dismissed it certain circles, but competencies can be things like problem-solving or critical thinking and analysis. CBE has great promise – but employers still don’t fully understand it: there needs to be more “customer education” from higher education institutions in that sense. In 2015, Parthenon–EY did a survey of nearly 500 hiring managers and found that only 9% of employers had a strong understanding of what competency–based education was.

Meanwhile, employers themselves are still moving toward competency-based hiring – that’s a prominent trend that HR leaders are talking about in 2016, and it is increasingly being enabled by technology. Often within employers, job descriptions and goals are not well designed or thoughtful and consistent, and many hiring decisions are still made based on instinct in notions like cultural fit. For competency-based education in all its variants to reach its full potential as a higher resolution signal in hiring, the employer side of the equation needs to have its job definitions and ability to analyze hiring trends in order.

There are many new exciting firms, technologies, and experiments related to things like e-portfolios and extended transcripts – ways to document learning in greater detail and present it to the outside world – but employers are not necessarily ready to integrate more information into their hiring systems, and transcripts and grades aren’t especially meaningful to most. This is where investor Ryan Craig’s notion of “competency marketplaces” like LinkedIn are truly disruptive and bear monitoring – you have central repositories developing that bridge professional work and experience, and learning outcomes and credentials. In general, there needs to be more connectivity and integration between the “data” produced on the educational side and the data input into employers’ hiring systems. Cloud computing and our data-rich society will increasingly enable this. If certain platforms gain traction and become dominant, things can change quickly.

Online Learning at VSU: An Interview with Art Fridrich

Art Fridrich is the first Director of Distance Education at Virginia State University, where he’s charged with bringing courses and programs from the classroom to the online environment. Art also works with faculty members to change the in-class experience for students. Prior to his role at VSU, he spent over 30 years in higher education as a consultant, administrator and technologist with over 70 colleges and universities in the US and abroad. 


Q. The common perception is that HBCUs have been less aggressive about creating online and hybrid programs. Is this a strategic decision?

This is a common perspective that I’ve heard many times. However, I believe that this thought might be somewhat misplaced. Nationally, there are 106 institutions that have the designation of an HBCU. Of those, a little over 30 percent offer at least one online program. The institutions that comprise this mix includes Tugaloo College, a private institution with less than 1000 students, who offers one online program to North Carolina A&T, a 10,000 student public institution with thirteen certificate and degree programs. The two institutions offering the most programs online are Hampton University, a private institution and Tennessee State University, a public institution, which are offering 20 programs online. In the end, when you consider size and other factors, I believe HBCU’s are delivering a comparable number of online programs to other institutions.

With this being said, there is certainly tremendous room for further growth, not only among HBCU’s but in general. Regarding the HBCU community, there are likely many factors that contribute to what may be perceived as stunted growth that might be encapsulated under the moniker of “strategic decision.”

Q. Should technology play a bigger role at HBCU’s? 

Even as a technocrat, I do not personally see technology in and of itself as a game changer. This is illustrated by the fact that I can’t begin to come up with the amount of technology that has been acquired by institutions during my career and shelved prior to or after implementation due to a lack of audience for the product.

In my mind, it is the role of a university’s administration and faculty to set into motion the evolution or transformation of the academy, embrace this change and then to adopt the appropriate technologies required to facilitate this change. For some institution’s, HBCU’s or otherwise, this already exists and it frankly isn’t difficult to identify them when looking. For others, there may be a need to reexamine their reason for existence, determine whether they need to begin developing a culture of change and then adopt the technology that will facilitate their vision of the future.

Q. Competency-based education has taken off in the last year. How do you see CBE fitting into the larger higher ed landscape? 

For an educational model that is still in its online infancy, I find myself as a big proponent of CBE. Nationwide, over 30 million adults have taken some and 4 million of those have completed at least two years of college. For even a portion of these learners, the ability to reenter the academy and apply a portion of their life experiences towards their completion will not only enhance their growth potential moving forward, but likely contribute to the reduction in the shortage of college graduates the nation now faces. For traditional students, CBE has the potential to address a major dilemma we currently face in education. Specifically, our classes are filled with students of varying readiness for the class they are enrolled. As such, the instructor is left to determine which population to address in the course, which leaves lesser prepared students by the wayside or better prepared students bored and unfulfilled. By focusing in on the level of knowledge acquired we rip down the barriers of time and types of student to provide just in time education.

Q. What areas of instructional technology do you find most promising as of 2015? 

With proliferation of VC infused vendors across a broad range of niches, that’s a difficult one to answer. So here’s my sense at this moment – MOOCs, Adaptive Learning and Competency Based Learning.

With MOOCs, I may see their role somewhat differently than others. I believe they have started to be and will continue to be the incubator for new education technologies. With the sheer numbers of students enrolled, regardless of motive, MOOC outcomes provide the most significant environment for quantitatively assessing the role a technology plays in the outcome of a student.

Although the latter two have a few years behind them, I don’t sense that they’ve come anywhere close to reaching their apex in the market yet. With Adaptive Learning, we have a large number of resource and platform based solutions, which I suspect will take five years or so before the technology settles and the market corrects itself to a supportable number. With CBE, we have seen explosive growth in the institutions adopting it and consultancies supporting it, but we (or at least I) haven’t seen the same explosion in technologies, beyond that of AL and proprietary institutional software.


Keith Hampson, PhD is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximizing value. 

Competency-Based “Hire” Education: Interview with Dr. Michelle Weise

Dr. Michelle R. Weise is a Senior Research Fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute specializing in disruptive innovation in higher education. She co-authored a book with Clayton M. Christensen about how online competency-based education will revolutionize the workforce and disrupt higher education titled, Hire Education: Mastery, Modularization, and the Workforce Revolution. Michelle’s commentaries and research have been featured in a number of publications such as The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Boston Globe, Inside HigherEd, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and USA Today. Prior to joining the Institute, Michelle served as the Vice President of Academic Affairs for Fidelis Education. She has also held instructional positions, serving as a professor at Skidmore College as well as an instructor at Stanford University. Michelle is a former Fulbright Scholar and graduate of Harvard and Stanford.Michelle Weise - Clayton Christensen Institute


Q1. You recently co-authored a paper with Clayton Christensen, Hire Education: Mastery, Modularization, and the Workforce Revolution that considered the potential of competency-based higher education. What is the key take-away of the paper? 

Our publication highlights online competency-based education (CBE) aligned to labor market needs as an early-stage threat that will strengthen over the years to become a significant workforce solution. These learning providers are hitting the mark by combining the right learning model, the right technologies, the right customers, and the right business model. There is a flexible architecture to competencies, which enables providers to stack together modules of learning easily and cost-effectively for a wide variety of industries and specializations. Although most of the innovation in CBE is currently occurring in traditional degree programs, online CBE is almost more powerful in the way that it can be used to build pathways that do not necessarily end in degrees.

Q2. The concept of “lifelong learning” has been around for at least a couple of decades. It underscores the idea that people need to continually recreate their professional lives through education. Setting aside the impact of an aging population in Western nations on the average age of learners, are we seeing a significant growth in demand for adult, lifelong learning? 

Yes, the four years of college at the front-end of a lifetime are simply no longer a guarantee for career. Particularly with rapid advancements in technologies, more and more working adults are seeing the need to skill up—simply to maintain their current jobs. McKinsey has this incredible statistic: between September 2009 and June 2012—in less than three years—the number of skillsets needed in the workforce increased from 178 to 924. We can only imagine how that number will increase with time. As a result, we’ll need more flexible and relevant lifelong learning mechanisms to help us move forward, re-tool, and advance our careers.

Q3. I’ve argued elsewhere that the growth of competency-based education will lead, in turn, to a greater lever of attention on measuring learning, for the simple reason that in order to facilitate students moving at different speeds through their programs, we need more accurate and frequent measures of mastery. What will it take for a critical mass of institutions to get to the point that they can offer this level of assessment? 

First off, it’s important to underscore that these online CBE programs that seek to facilitate a whole new value network for employers and students are not competing head-on with schools that deliver the traditional 18- to 22-year-old residential college experience. These pathways are and need to be driven by demand—not by accreditors or institutions. And this is what is truly disruptive: Because the employer truly is the ultimate consumer of the graduates in training, employers are really the main stakeholders that need to be persuaded. Many of these online CBE programs are therefore building unique distribution channels by partnering directly with employers and trying to skill up an existing workforce for the opportunities at hand. Employers are able to observe firsthand whether the quality of work or outputs of their employees are markedly different with these new programs in place.

Q4. To what extent do employers and educational institutions see the problem of employability differently? How will these differing perspectives impact the growth of CBE? 

Skeptics of CBE worry that employers will somehow end up dictating the requirements for student learning. In academia, there’s an intense territoriality over student learning as well as an undeniable scorn for vocational training. But those who disparage vocational training tend to get caught up in its connotations of career education, corporate training, and utility. Vocational training, however, doesn’t necessarily preclude the liberal arts or notions of effective citizenship, well roundedness, or artistry. In fact, as early as 1915, John Dewey argued “nothing could be more absurd than to try to educate individuals with an eye to only one line of activity.” Rather, these new competencies embody what Dewey called “a continuous activity having a purpose” with “an end in view.”


Keith Hampson, PhD is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximizing value. 

The End of College: Q&A with Kevin Carey

Kevin Carey is an American higher education writer and policy analyst. He is serving as Director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan research organization based in Washington, D.C. We asked Kevin about his recent, provocative book, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere.


519pnbpqZzL._AA324_PIkin4,BottomRight,-54,22_AA346_SH20_OU15_Before we get to the substance of the book, I’d like to ask about its reception. If you’re like most writers, you are surprised by some of the interpretations of your work. What responses did you not anticipate?

Most of the book takes place in the past and the present, telling the story of how American colleges and universities became what they are and how information technology might allow them to become something new. In the last two chapters, I present some ideas about what the future might bring. As I see it, some students will learn mostly online, particularly as human-computer interaction and digital learning environments improve. But many will continue to attend in-person institutions that provide direct relationships with peers, teachers, and mentors. Those institutions won’t, however, have to be colleges as we know them today. In other words, the future of higher education won’t be solitary, with everyone but an elite few learning alone in front of machines. Some of the criticism of the book has left out that last part, which is disappointing. Then again, it’s been out for less than a month, so maybe people haven’t gotten all the way to the end yet.

The future of higher education you present in “The End of College” places more responsibility on individual learners to design and follow-through on their own studies. Self-direction has long been an instructional ideal – we want students to take responsibility for their own learning. But there’s a fear that they simply won’t, at least not to the extent required in the scenario you’ve laid out in “The End of College”. 

People vary a great deal in their educational skills and motivational constructs. Some of them need a lot more support, or different kinds of support, than others. Existing colleges are often impersonal and cookie-cutter in how they treat students, and I think the future will provide more opportunities for customization, personalization, and variation in organizational philosophy. Traditional colleges are less diverse than they like to believe — they share a great deal of the same organizational DNA.

I also think there’s an important distinction between “design” and “follow-through.” Pretty much everyone needs guidance on the design of their studies. Effective pure auto-didacticism is rare. In many ways, that’s the very definition of education: creating an environment and set of relationships that deliberately guide people in the acquisition of skills, knowledge, and habits of mind. On the follow-through side, I think simply being better will accomplish a great deal. Good education challenges people to work hard and move out of their comfort zones, but doesn’t push them past the threshold of total frustration. That’s crucial and not easy to accomplish, which is exactly why people like the cognitive tutor designers at Carnegie Mellon are working to solve the problem.

So there’s no reason to believe the future of higher education will reduce the amount of necessary support that students receive. Quite the opposite.

It’s been suggested that your vision for higher education is best suited to well-supported, above average students – leading to a sharper class divide. Poorer students get MOOCs, and the 1% get 4 years at Yale. How do we ensure that this isn’t the case? 

Only the 1% get 4 years at Yale now. That’s the way it has always been, and always will be, as long going to Yale means living in a faux-Gothic building in New Haven, Connecticut. So the question is, can we radically expand the number of people of people who have access to the educational riches of Yale, and institutions like it? The answer is clearly “yes.” You can already access the lectures, courses, syllabi, assignments, and exams at Yale, for free. That problem has been solved. The question, then, is what additional educational resources does Yale offer, and can we provide them to many students at an affordable price? The existence of organizations like the Minerva Project, which is just as selective as Yale and also provides a rich liberal arts curriculum, for about one-third the tuition, suggest that we can. There can be many more organizations like that.

A common characteristic of discussions about change in higher education is the tendency for lines to be drawn between commentators and initiatives from within higher education (e.g. faculty) and those outside (e.g. think-tanks, entrepreneurs). Several of the people and initiatives you highlighted in the book are from outside higher ed proper (even some of the MOOC providers felt compelled to step outside of their institutions to bring something to the masses). And you, as an analyst at a think-tank, might also be considered an outsider. Is this divide significant? What might be its’ origins? 

It’s significant, but it can be overstated. Anant Agarwal left a great, prestigious job as the director of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory to head up edX. This involved moving from a building on the MIT campus to a building located one block away from the MIT campus. I interviewed Robert Lue, faculty director of HarvardX, in his office in the Harvard natural sciences building. He hasn’t gone anywhere. He said to me, “HarvardX is Harvard. It is us.” The West Coast MOOC providers have definitely stepped outside the academy into the world of for-profit, venture-backed companies, but that’s an incredibly porous border. The companies are located in Palo Alto and some of the founders still teach at Stanford.

That said, it’s not surprising that people who are currently employed by colleges are only going to go so far in agreeing with the thesis of a book titled “The End of College.”

In a review of your book, Don Heller wrote the following:
“In his claim that MOOCs and other online learning materials will replace colleges and universities, Carey also provides a very narrow view of the goals of higher education. A bachelor’s degree is more than just a collection of individual courses; college — when done right — also satisfies other developmental objectives, including extracurricular learning, developing interpersonal communication skills (of both the online and face-to-face variety), and instilling a sense of an individual’s role in a democratic society.”

This is a common criticism of online higher education. But it’s also odd given that online higher education didn’t set out to supplant all aspects of the traditional college experience – its’ focus is instruction. On the one hand, I recognize that meeting your spouse or having inebriated conversations with other students at the campus pub is important – it was for me. But isn’t also the case that these extracurricular dimensions of higher education are primarily accidents of history – rather than by design. Is it the case that our institutions set out to provide instruction, but these other dimensions then began to form around the core mission? 

Per my response above — I have a lot of respect for Don as a scholar of education but I think his critique ignores some of what I say at the end of the book. I quote from some of the relevant parts of the book here in explaining why. In short: there’s no reason why we can’t have the best of both worlds, online and in-person, for a lot less money than traditional colleges and universities charge today.

If alternative credentials grow in stature and students gain access to more information about the actual learning gains that a particular provider can offer, are we setting in motion a highly competitive education market (i.e. informed consumers with choice)? Are our institutions ready for this? Will they allow it? 

Yes, No, and It won’t be up to them. We need a competitive market in providing students a great education. We really don’t have one now. Educational institutions are complicated and hard to understand and most consumers are naive. There’s a dangerous conflation of price and quality. Existing institutions are theoretically in a great position to take advantage of this opportunity, because they employ a lot of smart, knowledgeable educators and have brand names that people trust. But many are deeply committed to not changing, are they are likely to struggle. They’ll fight opening up the market to new credentials, for obvious reasons of self-interest, but that’s not a fight that can be won forever. If you’re battling against better information, your days are numbered.


Keith Hampson, PhD is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximizing value. 

University of the People as Disruptive Innovation

Founded in 2009, University of the People (“UoPeople”) holds the distinction of being the first tuition-free, non-profit online university. To date, UoPeople has admitted more than 2000 students from over 150 countries, including the Sudan, Indonesia, and Haiti. Students enrol in either Business or Computer Science, for Associates or Bachelor’s programs. Most of the academic labour is supplied by volunteers, for which there is apparently no shortage. Open content is used and delivered using open source technology. Students rely heavily on peer-to-peer learning.

Screenshot 2015-01-15 16.43.50

In higher ed circles, discussions about of UoPeople typically frame the initiative in philanthropic terms: it’s grand and generous, but quite removed from higher education proper.

Certainly, generosity came to mind when I spoke with Shai Reshef (pictured above); the Founder and sponsor is modest and plain-spoken, and clearly has a sincere desire to help students.

But UoPeople can also be understood as a highly resourceful example of business model innovation; it bears a striking resemblance to the textbook definition of disruptive innovation (before the term was stretched beyond recognition):

  • it combines technology with a new business model to offer a stripped-down, feature-poor version of an existing service (higher education);
  • it seeks to serve “non-consumers”, rather than offer an alternative that attract students that have other, convenient and affordable options for getting a college education.

It’s true that the UoPeople relies on volunteers, many of whom are only able to share their expertise freely because they have jobs with universities. (The Provost is from Columbia, a Dean from NYU.) But Reshef confirms that the operation is sustainable in its current form and, in time, the anticipated surplus of funds could be used to hire a certain percentage of staff at market rates. It’s also important to remember how relatively large the “free economy” is in the education sector. (For more on the “free economy” concept, see Chris Anderson’s original riff here).

More than a philanthropic effort, the UoPeople may also be understood as an example of the different forms that higher education can take to meet the needs of increasingly global higher education system – particularly in the developing world.

Learn more about the University of the People.

Keith Hampson, PhD is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximizing value. 

Podcast Interview on “Meet Education”

Nick Di Nardo, host of “Meet Education” interviews Dr. Keith Hampson.


The Saxifrage School

A new DIY school, with a focus on “local”. Love it. More later, but for now check out their video and their site.