The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why colleges should stop splurging on buildings and start investing in software

Colleges and universities aren’t building the right things. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

For decades, America’s colleges and universities have been on a massive spending spree, building new dorms, student centers, sports complexes, and academic buildings. Despite all these expenditures, the key metrics are not much better. Graduation rates haven’t increased at the pace of much of Europe and Japan. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the percentage of young Americans who are less educated than their parents exceeds other leading nations.

What if the leaders of our colleges and universities had channeled just a fraction of this edifice-complex capital into technology improvements instead?

In technology terms, higher-education has spent massive amounts in “hardware” while dramatically under-investing in “software.” Software is the technology, tools and systems that make any business or organization more effective and efficient. Ask any of the tens of millions of students back on campus this fall at any of the thousands of universities and colleges:  “How has technology been used to improve the classroom or enhance the learning experience” and you will get a blank expression. Technology has infused and changed every part of this generation’s life – except for education.

Despite an increase in edtech spending, up 11 percent from 2012 to $13 billion, 62 percent of that is still spent on laptops, tablets, and netbooks, which can only service one student at a time and quickly become outdated. With more and more students in the position to provide their own devices it is important to not overspend on hardware and allocate money to software programs that can run on multiple devices and be used by thousands of students at once. Schools will still need to provide a small pool of school-owned devices to be borrowed but this mentality will reduce costs.

Software has improved most every other segment of the economy. How we shop, how we are entertained, how we get around town, and how we connect with friends. And in almost all cases it does things better and cheaper. So what could software do for education?

Software today lets students to re-watch the lecture that they might have missed or did not understand, thereby increasing learning. It can allow peer tutoring by connecting students to other students to ask questions or build virtual study groups. Professors can upload a short video clarifying something from class, eliminating the need for students to wait for office hours or teachers to inefficiently answer same question over and over again. Software today can allow teachers to ask questions to 500 students in a large lecture hall format and have all of them engaged real-time and provide analytics so we know who is learning and who is not before it is too late, thereby increasing retention and graduation. None of this technology is science fiction.

What about the claim by some that “there is no money to invest in technology?” During the most recent economic crisis, the market-research firm McGraw-Hill Construction reported that colleges and universities spent more than $11 billion on new facilities per year in 2010 and 2011, an astounding number that was more than a 100 percent increase over their capital spending in 2000. While some of this facilities expenditures represent critical upgrades to school infrastructure, certainly some of it went to luxury or ego projects that do not have the impact for students that investing in technology innovations could have.

The building craze is a major contributor to annual tuition increases. With student loan debt now greater than credit card debt, and jobs post-graduation harder to come by to pay back the high cost of the diploma, we are at the point universities and colleges must hold the line on further increases.

Great entrepreneurs and supportive venture capital firms are creating and funding education innovation. CB Insights recently published a positive report that in the first quarter of 2014, venture capital investment in education technology had the largest funding quarter since 2009 with $435 million being invested across 95 education technology companies.

We need to get this innovation into the classroom. We need real leadership in higher-education to shift dollars from hardware to software, to invest in technology not just buildings. The most promising leadership could come from a new group of 11 of the largest public research universities that joined together last month to form the University Innovation Alliance (UIA) with the goal to use technology and drive innovation in order to serve more students at a more affordable cost.

Together these universities serve 380,000 students in the United States or 20 percent of the population that attends four-year large research universities. This alliance is led by forward-looking and bold presidents that understand the opportunity to use technology to improve student outcomes and experiences while also making the university more effective and efficient.

Higher-education is the last major segment of our economy that is largely all-analog. It is ironic that the population that is most digital savvy does not have access to technology that can help them learn.    What can we do to support increased focus on technology in higher-education? The next time your alma mater asks for a reunion donation, send in the check marked “for use in technology to improve teaching or learning.” The needed shift from hardware to software can start with each of us.

Davis is co-founder of Revolution and co-leads Revolution Growth, an investment and business building firm based in Washington, D.C.