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Viewing Post-Secondary Education Through a Product Lens

Corey Wu

Corey Wu

Senior Product Strategist

September 20, 2022

Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes

illustration of random shapes and patterns in Thoughtworks brand colors.

As we look around the workplace, we see a larger diversity of skill sets and educational backgrounds within the same roles. Job descriptions are becoming far looser around educational levels and years of experience. Beyond showing your list of degrees and certificates, businesses are considering personal project portfolios as proof that they have the required skills for a job. With the rise of alternative educational options – like MOOCs, bootcamps, certificate programs, and professionals on YouTube – there are cheaper and more effective ways to learn practical and up-to-date information. What was once a monopoly on higher education is now becoming more decentralized, and alternative credentials are becoming more accepted by employers. Considering these signals, can we still justify the value and cost of traditional higher education? Are the current high student debt levels a sign that existing colleges aren’t working?

What if we considered how to replace colleges/post-secondary institutions and the functions it currently fulfills? 

User needs of post-secondary institutions

Let’s take a product lens to the problem and break down the principal needs colleges and universities currently fulfill to define the challenge better. We conducted 1:1 and group interviews with various ex-college students and asked them what they thought were the jobs or needs their post-secondary schools fulfilled. There were a range of responses that we clustered in order to identify some recurring patterns, leaving us with four major buckets of needs: Credentials, Learning, Socialization, and Self-Discovery.


As a means of getting a job

One of the most practical reasons people go to college is to gain the necessary prerequisites to get a job. They wish to complete a program or certificate to receive credentials that can signal to future employers that they understand a system of knowledge to a certain threshold of acceptance. By providing this credential, the school has helped the employer with pre-screening individuals. Beyond the knowledge itself, particular schools might be known to be more challenging or lenient, so achieving a credential from a particular institution might hold a stronger weight in signalling their knowledge based on the historical credibility and branding of the institution. But how accurate would that assumption be if taken?


As a pursuit of truth

One of the most romantic reasons people go to college is to seek truth and obtain knowledge as an end goal. When looking at Ivy League colleges, their mottos illustrate this through words including truth, light, character, and hope, none of which suggests why these institutions barricade knowledge through levels of exclusivity.

As a way to obtain job-specific knowledge

Depending on the program, students are presented with a ‘well-rounded’ curriculum while other programs are more specialized, preparing them for a particular career. A common program structure is a hybrid curriculum. Students are required to take foundational courses while still being able to explore within and beyond their domain.


As an optimized place to interact with others

Colleges are a breeding ground for like-minded individuals going through similar challenges together. This is an opportunity for students to meet new friends, develop their network, and explore perspectives. Just think of how many companies were founded by college friends.

As a closed system: social bubbles and echo chambers 

Although there are many benefits to surrounding yourself with people of similar age and with similar goals, colleges can create an environment where negative feedback loops feed on themselves and isolate certain individuals. While at its core, post-secondary education is about just that, education, it would be foolish to deny that there aren’t complex social dynamics that come into play on still very impressionable minds.


As a space to take risks and learn about yourself

As a culmination of all the other needs and activities mentioned above, college is a space for individuals to explore what is possible freely and discover their interests while refining their given talents. Colleges create a risk-free environment for students to explore, understand, and push their abilities to realize their potential. And this experience, perhaps, will be the most challenging one to substitute for.

Future tensions

With a foundational understanding of the four user needs of post-secondary schools, the next step would be to take a wider lens and explore emerging themes and critical uncertainties. When looking at competitors and other market forces within and beyond educational spaces, we identified a list of future tensions that came up and prioritized the two that had the biggest potential for impact with a high level of uncertainty:

Tension #1: Centralized vs. Decentralized

Polarized political views, a rising mistrust of larger institutional figures, and an increased interest in blockchain projects raise the question of whether our services and structures will shift from a more centralized to a decentralized model. 

Tension #2: Generalized vs. Specialized

Flatter organizations, career polygamy, and the increasing automation of entry-level tasks raise the question of whether job requirements will be shifting from a traditional ‘assembly line’ mode of specialized work towards a more generalized model, requiring knowledge and experience across several domains.

Grounded in user research and informed by a strategic understanding of future uncertainties, we can leverage these two critical tensions to consider possible scenarios in order to identify product implications and develop a more resilient product strategy. With our two future tensions, we can create a 2×2 matrix that will be the foundation for developing scenarios.

Future Scenarios

The above four quadrants represent a simplified view of plausible scenarios when we take our critical tensions to polar extremes. Within each scenario, we revisit the primary user needs and map the relevancy of each need in the future. Drill sites explore potential artifacts, jobs, and concepts to bring to life each scenario and identify product opportunities. Finally, the departure questions are directly related to each drill site and act as jumping-off points for further product ideation.

Final thoughts

From a product perspective, we have conducted some broader landscape analyses and began to explore desirability signals. In a typical project, the next steps involve ideation, feasibility and viability considerations, prioritization, and prototype testing. Going through this exercise, there are some big questions that we are left with. How deeply rooted is the college experience in our cultural rituals, and is it possible to replace such a rite of passage? Can these large institutions keep up with the skill demands of constantly evolving sectors such as the tech industry? Will we always require our doctors and lawyers to be certified, or is there a future where competency and trust can be proven in an alternative way? Are large-scale curriculums ‘good enough’ for the mass population, or should there be more personalization and opportunities to pivot between courses and career paths?

Replacing or competing against established college institutions is a complex challenge that requires a thoughtful approach. But using a product lens (desirability, feasibility, viability and usability) alongside the broader context of future workplace needs, technological development, and attitudinal shift, perhaps our education system can better serve its students by continually adapting its offerings to evolving student, industry, and societal needs while strategically considering future uncertainties.

Corey Wu

Corey Wu

Senior Product Strategist

Driven by a curiosity to learn more about thought mechanics and practical play, Corey is a strategist, designer, and storyteller who seeks to discover elegant solutions for wickedly messy problems.

Past experiences with Deloitte, Idea Couture and freelancing allowed him to explore challenges within finance, food, insurance, telecom, agencies, big pharma, health care, government, and entertainment; a depth and breadth he brings to every engagement.

If you think you might have some stories worth trading, feel free to reach out!

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