Tech Takes on Higher Ed

Unhappy with workers’ skills, big firms have begun schooling millions. Who will win the battle for America’s minds?

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By Peter Lauria

It used to be easier to delineate between the education and experience sections of a resume. These days, though, companies like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft aren’t just employers. They’re alma maters.

Welcome to Big Tech U, the future of education, where avatars have deposed mascots and tuition is for suckers. With soaring college costs calling into question the economic value of a four-year degree, and an unrelenting demand for digitally skilled labor that higher education has failed to satisfy, some of the world’s biggest companies are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into creating their own scholastic institutions. This isn’t a matter of workforce training. This is free-for-all technical schooling that has the potential to upend the academic landscape.

Amazon has committed to providing cloud computing training to 29 million people globally by 2025. Meanwhile, Google offers a subsidized online IT-support certificate that has enrolled tens of thousands of students. IBM, Salesforce, Facebook, and others have additionally expanded content offerings. These programs range from two-day fiber-optic splicing classes to 12-week full-time data engineering and artificial intelligence curriculums.

This trend has emerged because higher ed has been too slow to update its mainframe, says Catherine Ward, managing director of the nonprofit workforce-education organization Jobs for the Future. It hasn’t kept pace, which has encumbered innovation and constrained industry. The Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs, has gone as far as to urge employers to drop college degree requirements from job descriptions.

In many instances, the tech companies are partnering with brick-and-mortar universities and community colleges. The corporations create the content and determine the required competencies, but it remains in service of a traditional diploma—for now. It’s only a matter of time, experts predict, before the costly intermediary will be cut out of the equation.



Proponents say these programs have the potential to democratize learning and, in the process, retool the middle class. Critics worry, however, that a shrinking student body will weaken an already fragile post-secondary infrastructure and further foster a collective dependence on behemoth tech companies, leading to a form of digital indentured servitude. State and federal funding for arts and science research, as well as per-student spending, has already been declining since the Great Recession. COVID-19 struck another blow to endowments and other sources of private capital. If, in addition, tech companies begin to siphon students away, it could lead to a dismantling of public education. “As a country, we need a healthy college system, with a populace broadly educated in liberal arts, to be competitive,” says Johann Neem, a professor of history at Western Washington University and the author of What’s the Point of College? Meanwhile, China and other countries are doubling down on knowledge investments.

“Universities give people the building blocks for a career,” says Jamen Graves, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who specializes in talent consulting for tech firms. “Tech companies are targeting skills critical to their business needs.” And lest it be forgotten, these same digital conglomerates are currently facing a litany of antitrust accusations. Further unsettling is there are currently no regulatory guardrails or industry standards governing this emerging sector.

As with many creations to emerge from Silicon Valley, it remains to be seen how this will play out. Who wins the race for minds may depend on who can attract the best teachers, says Vinay Menon, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and global leader of the firm’s AI practice. Menon sees this competition as positive, spurring universities to deliver hybrid learning models that will shrink costs while expanding accessibility.

Big tech’s entrance into vocational training may even unburden educators, says Western Washington’s Neem. The pressure to churn out a digitally savvy workforce requires universities to offer specialized programs that don’t always align with their core objectives. Universities, he says, “are bogged down with programs that are, at the end of the day, job training.”