Monday, February 18, 2013

A Leadership Dilemma for Branch Campuses and Online Programs

When I suggest that most institutions of higher education are in trouble, I am in good company.  Many people say the same thing, and most point to the remarkably rapid emergence of very low cost alternatives for earning credits, especially in the lucrative area of general education, as well as alternative ways of certifying learning that tie to the needs of employers.

For example, at StraighterLine, one can earn a full year of general education credits for about $1000, and those credits will transfer to many institutions.  Companies, community colleges and a few universities are breaking new ground by providing free non-credit options that can be turned into transferable credits, through exams that may cost less than $100.  In short, the higher education financial model is breaking down.

Moreover, because leaders are convinced that spending on “amenities,” (athletics, additional buildings, etc.) is necessary in order to compete for residential students, they are increasing the cost of operation, at the same time their traditional revenue sources are under pressure.  With the eighteen-year-old demographic declining in many parts of the country, we are bound to see winners and losers, whether we look at the public or private sphere.

Just at the time that leaders need to reframe their thinking, they are, instead, trapped by the need to save their “brand.”  (And this trap is real.  I do believe that the main campus residential program creates the institutional brand for most universities.  Leaving aside political issues, alumni, donors, and everyone else, it would be foolish in almost all situations to close the main campus.  Thus, presidents and boards are locked into a “loss leader” as the activity on which they concentrate their time.  That’s a classic example of why established institutions struggle in a disruptive environment.)

I hear presidents say they want growth at their branch campuses and in their online learning programs.  Unfortunately, for the most part, they invest very little of their personal time or their political capital to get the point across to vice presidents, deans, chairs, alumni, or others.  Revenue sharing models either do not exist or are ineffectively designed, and few traditional educators understand the audience that chooses to enroll online or at branches.

Bottom line:  We have the perfect context for the emergence of new providers.  If institutions lose general education students, just as one example, it will be tough to replace that revenue, without pricing in a way that makes the competitive situation just that much worse.

Given the rapid engagement of elite institutions in the online market, it makes sense to aggressively identify niche opportunities and to empower innovation teams.  Unfortunately, I don’t see much evidence that is happening.  On the contrary, most efforts at “innovation” are kept on a very short leash, for political reasons, as much as from a lack of understanding.  What we see are linear improvements and incremental change, slowed by complex governance processes, when we need something much more creative.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Two Examples of Emerging Challenges to Traditional Institutions of Higher Education

Today (February 4, 2013), there are several stories in Inside Higher Education that illustrate the point of my last post, and I want to use two of them to express a relatively strong statement of concern.  I simply do not believe that many leaders in higher education understand the train that is bearing down on them.

The first piece is titled, “Free Course, Inexpensive Exam” (  The story describes the decision of a student to take a free online course, and then receive three credits at his home institution by taking a CLEP exam, for just $99.   The piece then discusses some of the many options that more and more students undoubtedly will choose over paying much higher tuition at a university, or even at a community college. 

The course was a general education course in psychology, and the student makes a perfectly understandable point that it made no sense to him to pay tuition to attend a large lecture class, in which personal attention or interaction would be limited.  However, my own observation is that general psychology is an enormously profitable course at most institutions, as are many other general education courses.  Indeed, a full cost accounting view of most upper level courses at universities would reveal that nearly all are offered at a deficit.  Take away the lucrative general education courses, and it may become impossible to balance a traditional residential institution’s budget.

The second piece is titled, “If a School Adds an Amenity and No One Knows, Does it Really Exist?  (  It caught my attention, because it is a blog post, commenting on a recent study that argues it may make economic sense for institutions to spend more on amenities than on improving academic quality.  (A story on the original research can be found at 

Leaving aside all sorts of things one might say about the implications of this study, my take is that it illustrates another reason that most institutions are in trouble:  They have bought into a war of competition, to fill first-year classes by building the “next new thing” that will draw students.  Regardless of whether the strategy works to attract students, it certainly increases the cost of operations and contributes to escalating tuition.

These pieces illustrate the dilemma faced at most institutions.  In effect, people are working harder and harder to fill their first-year class, with what may well be negative financial implications in the long run.  Some will succeed; some will fail.

The potentially good news is that many presidents and boards now understand the need to create new sources of revenue, and that could be helpful to branch campuses and providers of online courses.  Unfortunately, however, most leaders are trapped by their frame of reference, and outside of those of us with a branch campus or continuing education background, most leaders at traditional institutions do not understand how to build innovation teams and release the power of entrepreneurship.

Next time:  The leadership dilemma