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

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