I have updated my Ed-Tech Funding project with the dollars and deals from February. This past month, ed-tech startups raised $566,950,000.
But there’s an asterisk by that figure as it includes $500,000,000 raised by one company, student loan provider SoFi – money that SoFi says it plans to use to “push beyond lending.”
Many ed-tech publications do not count SoFi as “ed-tech,” preferring to label it as “fintech” and thereby excluding it and other student loan startups from their calculations. Edsurge, for example, does not include student loan startups in the “ka-ching!” reports it sells as it says it only considers ed-tech to be those “technology companies whose primary purpose is to improve outcomes for all learners, regardless of age.”
But that isn’t a particularly helpful delineation in my mind. Would a student information system or any sort of administrative software fall under that definition? Isn’t the point of financial aid – public and private – ostensibly “to improve outcomes”? Does a messaging app like Yik Yak count? It was marketed to students after all. Does a company that offers career assistance to college students count? Why not? (And you can’t say “because it doesn’t improve learning.” Most ed-tech doesn’t actually “improve learning,” let’s be honest.)
I try to cast a wide net when I include companies in my funding research because I want to be able to have as full a picture as possible about the types of education companies that are getting funded. But I’m also incredibly interested in the types of market opportunities that venture capitalists have identified in education.
That’s why excluding private student loans from “the state of ed-tech” strikes me as so disingenuous if not outright dangerous. Ignore student loan startups and you have a very skewed sense of what the priorities are for investors, all of whom are actively trying to shape the narratives about the future of education. Think Peter Thiel and his proclamation of a “college bubble.” Think Ryan Craig and that mantra about the “unbundling” of higher ed. (Both are partners in VC firms that are investors in student loan startups, funnily enough.)
Tressie McMillan Cottom’s new book, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy, is particularly useful in thinking about the “financialization” of education. (And there’s a reason why she and I have described “coding bootcamps” as “the new for-profit higher ed.”) Well beyond the push for “everyone learn to code,” it’s worth considering how digital technologies – in the classroom, in administrators’ offices, in human resources departments, at home – have become a core part of the “Wall-Street”-ification of education. You cannot separate venture capital from all that; you cannot. And I would argue that the growing power of the investor class is a far more significant development in education than any technical or pedagogical advance that ed-tech purports to bring to “learning.”
Earlier this week, news broke that ResearchGate, a social network for scholars, had raised $52.6 million… back in November 2015. When Business Insider asked the founder why he hadn’t disclosed the investment (until required by law to do so by the German government), he said that “I didn’t really want to announce it because I think talking about funding generally is pretty boring.” Or perhaps (and more likely) he was concerned about how faculty might respond to news that Goldman Sachs and Bill Gates were so heavily invested in his idea.
Regardless, disclosure about ed-tech funding is incredibly important – for transparency, certainly, but also because it helps remind us that the for-profit companies involved with education have other missions besides simply “improving learning outcomes.”