October has been a big month for us electric mobility nerds. First came the Hummer EV reveal, and next came the announcement of a Harley-Davidson electric bike.
What about this $112,595 1,000 horsepower electric vehicle, this still unknown price or specifications e-bike, has anything to do with colleges and universities? The answer to this question depends on how you think about the future of higher ed.
For cars and trucks, the destination of the future is clear, if not the timing. Eventually, at some point, batteries will replace internal combustion. Electric cars are not only emissions-free, they contain exponentially fewer moving parts than traditional vehicles. The electric car or truck of the future will be simpler to produce and will have few parts to break down. This simplicity and reliability will eventually drive down the total costs of ownership.
How long the transition to electric vehicles takes will depend on how long it takes for battery technology to improve. While coming down in price quickly, batteries large enough to power a car for any reasonable range are still hugely expensive. Beyond range anxiety, charging times remain significantly longer than filling up a gas tank, and the charging infrastructure is nowhere near as built out as gas stations.
The Hummer EV is straight out of the Tesla playbook for vehicle electrification. Start with a high-priced luxury model and then use those revenues to drive down the production costs for less expensive models. Nobody needs a $112K electric truck. I highly doubt that almost any Hummer EV buyers will drive the thing off-road. The Hummer EV is a status symbol pure and simple. We may think that this thing is ridiculously over-the-top, but if it helps get us to the transition to affordable electric vehicles, we are happy that GM is going for it.
In higher ed, neither the future destination nor timing is as clear as it is with cars and trucks. There are no direct analogs for internal combustion engines or batteries across the postsecondary ecosystem.
However, we can make some broad projections about the dominant trends shaping the future of higher education. As with the need to move away from internal combustion due to the necessity to de-carbonize in the face of a climate emergency, higher ed faces its own reckoning in the form of demographic shifts and diminished public funding. The environment that almost every college and university must navigate will only get more challenging in the years to come. The declining number of high school graduates in the Northeast and Midwest, combined with dwindling state support levels, will force schools to evolve their business models.
Just as GM is not doing away with gas-powered cars, colleges and universities will not abandon their core residential degree programs. These residential degree programs, however, will be increasingly joined and supplemented by online programs. Schools have no choice but to go after new markets for students, especially at the masters level. The full-time master’s student will still exist but in ever diminishing proportions. The future of graduate school belongs to the adult working professional, and that means online programs.
The question is, will most schools stop at online learning? I don’t think so. We are likely to see an industry-wide shift to both alternative online credentials (certificates) and lower-cost online degrees at scale. If online education is like vehicle batteries, alternative credentials, and low-cost scaled degrees are like autonomous driving. The future of mobility is not only electric but also self-driving (and perhaps ride-sharing).
Today, autonomous vehicles are still controversial. Nobody knows when the self-driving future will arrive, and automakers are pursuing different strategies to develop these technologies. Alternative online credentials and low-cost degrees at scale are similarly controversial within higher ed. Some schools are going all out in creating that future. Others are hanging back. Like auto companies, colleges and universities that wait too long to develop the capabilities for certificates/scaled-degrees might find themselves on the wrong side of the future.
What about the electric bicycle from Harley-Davidson? I think that lesson here is about a willingness to experiment. Harley might find that e-bikes serve as a gateway drug to electric motorcycles. Who knows. A technology-forward electric bike will make the Harley brand relevant to a segment of consumers that doesn’t think much about motorcycles.
Too often, colleges and universities are afraid to experiment in adjacent sectors (motorcycles to e-bikes) out of fear of damaging their brands. Many more colleges and universities could be following the lead of Georgia Tech or Boston University or Illinois by offering affordable online degrees at scale. We don’t know if these scaled online programs can be delivered with high quality or if offering them reduces the demand for existing residential programs.
The only way to figure this out, however, is to experiment. If a company as traditional as Harley-Davidson can try something new with an e-bike, shouldn’t we be willing to do the same?