Peabody Institute Chair Hollis Robbins at Johns Hopkins University just wrote a provocative piece in The Chronicle Of Higher Education on an idea so simple and so intuitively right that it feels like it should already be in wide use. Dr. Robbins looks at the broad skill sets of multi-discipline PhDs and asks why one or some of them banded together couldn’t offer the equivalent of at least the first year of a liberal arts university education on a home schooling basis — and do so with better outcomes (and at lower cost) than the students would likely get at a good private liberal arts college or university; the idea being for the students to earn home college credits and transfer in to “formal” programs after they’ve done the first year or two with the private providers.
As you would expect from a humanities professor, the piece is balanced, subtle and eminently reasonable.
You can read the article here.
It got me thinking. The home college idea begs the question — Why couldn’t companies do the same thing? What a perk it would be for employees to be able to get, on a part-time basis, a top-flight liberal arts education through work. For companies of a certain size, hiring three or four full-time PhDs is a small cost. The professors might easily handle up to 100 company students a year. Smaller companies could band together to share costs.
Though such a program could easily be run by a corporate university, this idea is nothing like traditional corporate universities, which are generally driven by line-of-business needs and are vocational in purpose rather than about explicitly building employees’ personal capabilities.
It’s a radical and I think powerful idea. It’s kind of an anti-MOOC (though there’s nothing stopping any such program from incorporating MOOCs into the curriculum). It could also turn out to be cheaper (and a lot better) than sending an equivalent number of staff to community college.
The benefits to the business of setting up a company college might include:
- An increase in employee engagement (and thus higher employee retention rates)
- A reputation boost for the company in its industry and communities
- A smarter workforce (hat tip to IBM) — let’s be honest, though humanities training does not easily translate into job-specific skill-set libraries, the general truth is clear — over the long run, better people means better business
On that last point, one of the downsides of doing what everybody else is doing is that there’s no strategic competitive advantage to be had in the process: your best outcome is to not fall behind your peers. The upside of doing something different, something like Dr. Robbins’ suggests for example, is that, if it works, you’re in blue water.