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To Bundle or Not to Bundle (in Higher Education)

Higher education today faces many challenges, including lower than desired completion rates, the high cost and resulting debt associated with attaining a degree, and low educational quality that leaves many graduates unprepared for the workforce and employers disappointed with their abilities.

One approach to these challenges currently receiving a lot of attention is the “unbundling” of college degrees, in which students complete only those courses or develop those skills needed to acquire competencies for employment. 

At the same time that unbundling college degrees is gaining momentum, many campuses are bundling curricula even more tightly in order to integrate learning and provide students with a more coherent experience. These efforts are underway to help students make intentional connections between different disciplines and experiences, which will enable them to bring a broad range of knowledge, skills, attitudes, and frameworks to bear on the complex problems they face as students and will face as employees and citizens. Bundled education promotes success in today’s world, as the issues and problems people encounter are too complex to be addressed with one discipline or a set of discrete technical skills. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching are supporters of bundled education. AAC&U’s LEAP Challenge pushes for all college and universities to engage their students with assignments that require them to integrate their learning from across disciplines to address real-world challenges.

While advocates of unbundled and bundled education both make strong cases for their approaches, it is essential that unbundled education not be considered a substitute for or equivalent to bundled education.

The promise of unbundled education is that it provides students the option to select and complete courses based on the competencies they need to acquire and succeed in particular jobs— without the debt associated with attaining a degree. Completion rates for unbundled courses would likely be higher than completion rates for traditional degrees, which require several years of progressively advanced work to complete, and the quality of many unbundled courses could be high since they narrowly focus on promoting a specific competency. It should be noted, however, that there has been some criticism of the quality of these courses. This will have to be addressed if unbundled education is to be a viable option.

On the other hand, those working to bundle education are seeking to create coherence for students by integrating learning across curricula and, in many cases, cocurricular experiences. The goal is for students to no longer view courses and experiences as discrete events; instead, integrated curricula connect courses and experiences and seek to develop students' ability to employ multiple disciplinary perspectives and skills. Integrated curricula require students to remember and practice what they previously learned and to apply their skills and knowledge in new contexts. To accomplish this, integrative curricula are often organized around themes or problems, or they may focus on progressively more advanced development of skills like communication or critical thinking. Some institutions are developing interdisciplinary majors and attempting to reduce or even eliminate disciplinary boundaries through organizational restructuring. Arizona State University's aspiration to "fuse intellectual disciplines" is one example.

Another advantage of bundled education cited by its advocates is that it is best suited to address employers' dissatisfaction with college graduates’ abilities. Numerous surveys highlight this dissatisfaction or identify the most essential employee skills required for the workforce. Communication, teamwork, and problem solving are usually at or near the top of lists of skills valued by employers and, as noted above, bundled education promotes these skills by integrating opportunities for students to develop them across curricular and co-curricular programs. Surveys conducted by AAC&U and the National Association of Colleges highlight employers’ views on these skills.

What role, then, should unbundled education play in higher education? Low completion rates, high costs, and low quality are all serious issues; however, it is important to understand the limitations of unbundled education compared to what a degree can offer, especially a degree that integrates learning. These limitations suggest that the two approaches (bundled and unbundled education) reflect a difference in kind rather than a difference in degree (no pun intended), and this distinction should be kept in mind when considering the future role of unbundled education.

Unbundled education views students as consumers and curriculum designers. Students determine what competencies they need to achieve their employment goals. They then find courses that promote these competencies, enroll in these courses, and complete them. Students repeat these steps until they are employable. Employees might complete additional unbundled courses to assist with a job change, make promotion more likely, or in response to identified weakness.

This places a lot of responsibility on students to determine what they need from their education, and it is difficult to imagine many being able to put together a coherent curricular plan. Even those who have this ability, or have assistance, will need to be able to design a curriculum that addresses their needs in an economically efficient manner based on a very accurate assessment of their needs for a job they do not yet have. Furthermore, given the rate of change in today’s technology-driven global economy, there is no guarantee these jobs will require the same skills, or even exist in the same form, by the time students’ complete their coursework.

Advocates for bundled education agree with employers about the importance of skills such as communication, problem solving, and teamwork, which is why many institutions already have student learning goals aligned with these skills, and why they are turning to bundled education to better promote them. Therefore, advocates for unbundled education will have to demonstrate how well a single course promotes the skills necessary for employment compared to a curriculum and cocurriculum that are integrated and designed to support student attainment of the same skills.

Unbundled education seems too narrowly focused given that the work environment is not unbundled: employees address problems, work in teams, and communicate in complex and messy contexts. These contexts often require employees to draw on knowledge and skills from multiple disciplines and experiences, which enables them to recognize nuance and successfully address problems they encounter. This seems to make a single, or even multiple, problem-solving or communication courses insufficient preparation for the workforce. Employees with degrees will have foundational knowledge, disciplinary skills, and problem-solving experience that employees who completed only unbundled courses will not have.

Even if advocates of unbundled education are right, much will be lost if significant numbers of students forgo bundled degrees. In addition to preparing students for the workforce, bundled education develops informed citizens and educated people who have encountered some of the most significant ideas of the past, present, and future; it also prepares and (hopefully) inspires them to continue learning. While specific skill training may prepare students for their current jobs, a bundled education prepares students for jobs that do not yet exist.

Although there is still a lot of work to be done to refine integrated curricula and demonstrate their value, these efforts have the potential to help students become even better communicators, thinkers, and team members who bring rich perspectives and diverse skills to the workforce and their communities.

Both bundled and unbundled will likely have a role in the future of higher education; however, it is important to be realistic about what each can achieve. Even if unbundled education is a helpful innovation, it should not be seen as a replacement for the bundled curricula offered by traditional college degree programs.

Chris Mayer is the associate dean for Strategy, Policy, and Assessment and Academy Professor of Philosophy at the United States Military Academy in West Point, NY