All posts in Future of Higher Education

Video Forecasts the End of Higher Education


“It is the best of times — it is the worst of times. In 2020, people have access to a breadth and depth of knowledge unimaginable in an earlier age. However, (colleges) as you know them have ceased to exist. Academia’s fortunes have waned. Twentieth century universities are an afterthought, a lonely remnant of a not-too-distant past.”

So begins a video titled “Epic 2020” that has been getting some attention on the Web. I disagree pretty strongly with some of the points made in the video, and believe the timeline is quicker than colleges will actually decline, but I keep coming back to this video for a bunch of reasons.

First, some reservations: Despite the opening passage, Dickens this is not. The presentation is rife with ironies and howlers. It forecasts that  technology will overwhelm higher education, but the video itself is low-tech to the extreme, much of it consisting of a “scatter gram” representation of a voice. The narrator, Bill Sams of Ohio University, mispronounces the name of his biggest influence, Sebastian Thrun, for believing traditional higher education is headed for the grave. A little more research, please!

The ending is also a puzzle. Sams seems to be setting up Epic 2020, his “organization,” as some kind of HAL 9000. In 2020, he intones, Google will launch Epic — “the Evolving Personal Information Construct. Epic not only understands everything that you know, but also it knows everything that you need to know to be successful in your professional , social and personal life. EPIC constructs and provides just in time knowledge and information that keeps you current and synchronized with everyone around you.”


But here’s why I can’t get this video out of my head: the straight-ahead, uninflected narrative, and the voicing of the greatest fears of many in higher education — that the forces that will permanently change what we have all thought of as higher education have already been unleashed. Sams lays out a narrative with these key points:

  • He speaks at length about the Khan Academy, and notes that its brilliance lies in its assessment system. Time on task is measured in seconds. It is the first real-time assessment of learning, something that schools have long wanted to avoid.
  • Sams believes academic badges will grow in stature as alternative to degrees, and successful and promising graduates will be identified not by their degrees and the institutions where they got them, but by professors and fellow students at a place like Thrun’s Udacity, where student comments and questions are rated by others, and the most engaged and insightful students gradually rise to the top of influence ratings. Those students are then identified to potential employers as the most promising potential hires. The companies would pay the educators for their help in identifying their star future employees.
  • Public universities will be forced by fiscal constraints and pressure from parents and legislators to award transferable course credits for demonstrated ability rather than class attendance and passing grades on tests and papers. The connection between class content and assessment will be broken.
  • Most new online classes are free, and, in time, other colleges cannot sustain the prices for classes that they are commanding. Tuition is abandoned as a concept. The student loan industry collapses, as well.

Will higher education collapse in this manner? No, this is far too simplistic. But are there grains of truth and seeds of nightmares in this? I would argue Yes. This video should inspire a mixture of guffaws, inspiration, and feelings of dread in just about anyone who watches it. So, if nothing else, Sams has succeeded in starting a dialogue that any college thinking seriously about its future needs to have.


Disruption is Inevitable: Five Ways to Prepare

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Let’s say you are are a college president watching everything you know in the world of higher education changing. And you are convinced that disruptive innovation is about to overtake your institution.

What are the five things you should be focusing on right now to make sure your institution is a survivor.

1. Communicate. This is not the time to retreat to your bunker. Share your thinking with trustees, your colleagues in the administration, faculty leaders, parents, donors and students. Share every piece of writing you find that buttresses your thinking, or gives reason for your community to rethink its current trajectory. Share data that undergirds the changes you anticipate — increasing student debt, rise in tuition vs. growth in annual salary, decreases in college giving and growth in endowment. Don’t just focus on higher education data — look for cultural data, too. Focus on information and data that speaks about the student of the future, such as increasing skepticism of the value of going into debt, ways young people are looking for work.

Most importantly, write down your own thoughts, and build your own narrative about what you think the future holds. Modify your story for each constituent group, but be consistent. “Change is coming, we can’t avoid it. If we anticipate it, and get in front of it, we can still be successful. But it is going to take all of us pulling together, with newly defined responsibilities to make it happen.” Constantly refine and improve that narrative. Your narrative will be the story that people have to cling to in uncertain times.

2. Build bridges. Higher education is under attack from every direction. Some of the criticism about lack of innovation and efficiency are self-inflicted wounds. Higher education hasn’t wanted to change, and it hasn’t been forced to, until now. But keep in mind that your institution has also made a lot of friends, and impressed a lot of people along the way. Your degree has changed people’s lives, you graduate students who make local employers better, programs and special events your institutions have held have inspired people, made them feel selfless and part of something larger than themselves.

The public and legislative leaders can predict what you are going to say about the value of higher education. It means something more when others stand up and make the case. Right now, you need all the friends you can get. It’s time to call them and ask for their help.

3. Burn some others. No matter how much you want to, you can’t save everything. Something will need to be sacrificed on your campus. Don’t do the easy or the politically expedient thing. Engage everyone in your community, to the greatest degree possible, in a process to uncover what is special to your college, what makes it unique. In other words, answer this question: if there is one reason to save this college, what is it? If the answer starts with “it has always been here, serving this community,” you are in trouble. The answer needs to be more vital and specific than that.

Commit yourself in a very public way to examining the college’s mission, and affirming it. Then go through every department and program, and ask, “Does it serve our mission?” You might be surprised — if the program that can’t fill the classroom seats is essential to your core, you should keep it. An open process like this will reinforce the integrity with which you are going about this exercise. There is much pain and controversy ahead — your integrity might be the only thing you have to cling to.

You might decide that the mission is old-fashioned and out-of-date, and needs to be changed. But that needs to be a separate blog post!

4. Rethink your business model. Is the business model really broken, as some have recently suggested? Or is the business model not expansive enough to incorporate a new way of doing things? “College,” for many of us, has a mix of connotations — social, educational, cultural. We tend to think of it as one product because that is the way most of us experienced it. Maybe we think college was vital to reinforcing our first feelings of independence, maybe we had our first moment of “clarity” about ourselves while reading great literature or discussing Socrates, maybe we learned an important lesson in the hurt of relationships, maybe we picked up a piece of career advice that still defines our professional approach to this day. Do all of those have to be part of the same package? Or can they be broken down into separate products?

This part involves some large tradeoffs. Some part of your audience may still want that residential cultural immersion of college. Are you the right college to provide it? Maybe not. Maybe your college is going to be defined by intense learning communities, online and off, where students learn in cohorts but don’t necessarily share living space. The members of that learning cohort might change from class to class, but the rigor of instruction, the emphasis on team dynamics and the personal involvement of an instructor are its hallmarks. Is that still higher education? Yes, by most definitions. But is it “college,” as most of us have historically defined it? Maybe not. There are many, many variations on this business model. Once you start to consider them, your mind may open up.

5. Focus on the customer. This is closely related to the previous point, but involves yet another way of thinking. Let’s put it this way: If a college is a business, then what is its product? Most would argue that it’s the degree that graduates get to affirm their competence and skill, and help them in finding a job. But when you think about it, universities are not easily categorized as businesses because they have so many products, some of which are virtually unrelated: Lives are saved at university hospitals; campuses are venues for huge entertainment events, like football games or concerts; researchers in labs are curing diseases or discovering better industrial lubricants or robots that can “think.” College can be seen as massive hotels (called dorms), massive food courts, massive discounters (financial aid), and large employers of low-skilled workers in areas like landscaping and maintenance. How does your college make money? It is making money in the right places, and for the right reasons? If your product is really a degree, how much do all of these other functions contribute to that? And what business are you really in?

As disruption overtakes higher education, your job is to figure out reasons why people will still want your products and pay the price you are asking for. What sets you apart? How do you begin to describe it, and then execute on it? Different universities will have different answers to these questions. Some can easily justify the necessity of all the products they provide. They are serving many customers, most of them well. Other universities are trying to do too many things, and they aren’t doing some of them well. Are all of them necessary? Which ones are not? For those that define their product primarily as that degree, does it make sense to spend all your time struggling to keep every ball in the air, while your most important customer, the student, is feeling more neglected, and more brittle and cynical? If a college can’t figure out how to serve that customer, it has no future.


The Faces of Higher Education: Adult Student


This is the second post in an occasional series on the Faces of Higher Education. These are the stories of students, faculty, and administrators within the United States Higher Education system. Each person will be presented through interviews, profiles, or stories. So often when thinking about higher education we look at statistics, trends, and institutions, but rarely do we look at the people.  The faces and stories within higher education often highlight the issues better than any chart or data set. Here’s one.

Patrick Cunningham is a 48-year-old law school student at a top-ten law school. After a successful career as both a journalist and freelance writer, Patrick decided to go back to school. During my hour-long conversation with him at Chicago O’Hare international airport last month, I learned that his decision to go back to school was to put it simply, very complicated. Patrick wanted a new career and always had a deep interest in the law, but he also had to decide whether taking on $200,000 of debt at his age with a family was worth it.

“So what are you going to do after you finish, what’s the goal?” I asked.

Patrick said that he didn’t really know and it depends on the week that you ask him. He thinks that he might become a junior associate at a law firm or maybe a researcher. The average starting salary of a first year associate is around $70,000 and the average age is far below 48. My natural reaction is to think that he should already have a plan when investing that much time and money in his degree. But I realize for Patrick it’s not about having a plan – it’s about testing himself. It’s about expansion and the power of new beginnings. It doesn’t have to make sense.

“So how do you like it,” I ask.

Patrick goes off on an eloquent rant about how he is so different than the younger students and that the institution isn’t set up to support a student his age. “I am not meant to be there, this program is not built for me,” he says, referencing his age and family (he has a boy and girl ages 9 and 14). Patrick is amazed at how competitive and conservative the young students are and he is critical of the standard curriculum. He comes across as a man trying to find himself again – looking for some deeper meaning, looking for the right question that will lead to a new revelation. “All the students do what they are supposed to do – no one is questioning anything,” he says.

I can tell that law school has let him down. Patrick expected something else – he didn’t exactly know what, but for some reason the institution, the students, and the experiences haven’t inspired him. I understand that it is complicated. There are so many factors to consider when going back to school at any age and at the end of the day a lot of them won’t be rational. Institutions need to identify and reach out to these students and build them into their culture because I have a feeling that Patrick isn’t finding what he needs because he is outside of it.

One of the many things that excite me about the College of 2020 is that it will be for everyone – we have to think of it as an ideal where the needs of all students will be met. Programs and institutions will cater to an infinite variety of student situations and motivations. Higher education has to evolve to meet the needs to Patrick and others like him, or else its risks not being relevant.



Faculty v. Administrators: Neither Side Can Win


After an extended Easter weekend spent intentionally away from the headlines and smartphones, it was interesting to come back to a lot of hand-wringing over the economic model of higher education. This is hardly new, but it was interesting to see administrators worrying about rising costs of faculty members and little associated hope for increased productivity. Faculty members, in turn, argue that the growth in the number of administrators and their associated pay packages, is the real cost-driver in higher education. It seems to me that this debate is at the crux of the current economic troubles in higher education. And it is not going away.

This very impressive overview by Ann Kirschner in the Chronicle of Higher Education of the many issues besetting higher education and the rash of recent books that has recounted them, made me think more about the battle between faculty members and administrators. This is a zero-sum game. Higher education is changing fundamentally and quickly, and arguing about who is to blame isn’t going to change that.

Kirschner writes:

How long will it take for change to affect higher education in major ways? Just my crystal ball, but I would expect that institutions without significant endowments will be forced to change by 2020. By 2025, the places left untouched will be few and far between.

I agree with her crystal ball. That’s one reason this blog has the name it has! For my money, the growth in the academic badge movement, in particular, is a direct threat to the primacy of higher education and its domination of the market for credentials.

Against that narrative, almost everyone must change their ways, and that is going to mean pain on all sides. If the status quo continues, at most institutions, this ongoing debate will be little more than fighting over crumbs, and the world will pass by the combatants.

It comes to this: higher education is a timeless product, but that doesn’t mean the ways of teaching it and offering it should not change.

If everyone at a given institution can agree to that, then it might have a fighting chance.


Small Colleges Need to Show They Understand Parents’ Economic Pain


The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) has been keeping this running list of colleges that are reducing tuition, freezing it for one or more years, offering three-year degree programs, and starting other initiatives to keep the cost of college down. The document helpfully points out that average tuition and fees at private colleges, after adjustment for inflation, actually declined 4.1 percent from 2006-07 to 2011-12. When you factor in the ever-increasing tuition discount rate, the tuition students are actually paying at private colleges has assuredly decreased even more than 4.1 percent.

This is an exceedingly difficult public relations war. After years of huge increases — until the tuition and fees at hundreds of private colleges roughly equals the median annual household income in the United States — the idea that college had just become too darn expensive has become cemented in the minds of most consumers.

When faculty members are donating money to fight job cuts at one college, and administrators are suspending retirement contributions at another, one gets the idea that large troubles loom for many small private colleges.

Compare that kind of information to announcements like these:

New Charter University is offering unlimited classes for $199 a month. For-profit institutions have the fastest growing enrollments and now teach more than 1 in 9 college students. Udacity, the new online university founded by former Stanford robotics professor Sebastian Thrun, is being backed by the same venture capital company that funded Twitter.

Which part of higher education do you think is ascendant?

This terrific essay in the New Republic argues that the higher education establishment “is crumbling as we speak.”

Which brings me back to that list of NAICU colleges that are at least trying to do something different. Yes, as I mentioned, it is a tremendously difficult argument for a college to win — that they are efficient and cost-effective. But some people have got to stand up and bravely say that the business model isn’t working anymore, and colleges savaging one another only results in everyone losing.

Cutting tuition or guaranteeing to hold it at a certain rate is only one way of showing good will to consumers, or at least that a college understands the pain of its customers. Many more steps need to be taken if the hundreds of fine small colleges in this country are to be preserved. But as a start, if your college is not on that NAICU list, what are you waiting for? And if another college can think of more strategies that show them to be humble and student-centric, even better.


photo courtesy of flickr user sean mcmenemy


The Future of Social Media in Higher Education – Part 1

This post is the first post in a three part series on the future of social media in higher education. These posts will be released over the next few weeks.

I spend a lot of time thinking about where social media is headed and also, what potential it has to continue to revolutionize the way we learn, communicate, and experience life. In fact I have been thinking about this for a long time and now it is part of my job. So in order to understand where we are going with this series, let me take you back to the beginning. In 2004 when I was a student at the University of Chicago we got thefacebook (now Facebook) – in fact we were one of the first schools in the country to get it. I like to say I was one of the first users – which probably isn’t that far off. I was probably user 23,147, but there is no way to know now. As the tech community likes to say – “I was one of the early adopters”. Don’t forget that Facebook was built by college students for college students.

I remember the day well – when I signed up and got to see if the girl I had met at a party had joined yet, just so I could remember her name. It was simple back then – social media was a way to get information about people. That was it. Now it has morphed into a brand driver, memory saver, and even shall I say it… lifestyle. Some people spend more than 10 hours a day on Facebook – they leave it on their computers when they work and study, and when they are on the go it’s on their phone.

I also remember the day when Facebook opened up the network to high school kids – I felt cheated, as if somehow Facebook had been tainted because my friend’s 13-year-old sister suddenly wanted to be friends with me. Things quickly went downhill from there, as the network exploded into the minds and onto the computers of over 800 million people. And with this growth the world changed – or well at least a lot of things changed.

I didn’t realize how much had changed until the summer of 2010, when I spent time traveling around east Africa. One day in the middle of July I was sitting in a tiny internet café in a small town in Tanzania – the computers were massive desktops and the dial up modems took about 5 minutes to connect. As I waited to check my email I looked around the café. At the seven other computers every single person was checking their Facebook profiles. Halfway around the world in the middle of Tanzania these people were glued to their screens laughing, chatting, and connecting with their friends.

Today Facebook and LinkedIn have hundreds of millions of users. Other social networks like Pinterest and Instagram are growing at tens of thousands of users a day. Social media has changed not only the way we communicate, but also the way we experience life, friends, and moments. Every moment can be captured and catalogued on a screen – with a mobile device in our pockets – and remembered by a server far away somewhere. When we need that memory we can just log on and find the picture, video, chat, post, or message.

What does this mean for higher education? For the ways we will learn in the future? Well imagine 800 million people learning together? Imagine higher ed institutions curating content and offering certifications through social networks? As we experience more and more of our lives online, higher education will continue to move deeper into social networks and there is an incredible opportunity for institutions that have the vision to drive this change.

In the second post we will dive deeper and look at the potential of social networking platforms within higher education.


photo courtesy of flickr user webtreats


Is a Campus a College when Everyone Studies Online?


We’ve written a lot lately about aspects of colleges that will have to change over the next few years, like admissions, and technology, and teaching styles. We have talked about some of the economic theories that help explain why this is occurring. We have also talked about some of the forces upholding the old model of higher higher education that has been resistant to change, such as marketing and accreditation (and here).

But what about the very core of your college: the campus?

A decade ago, colleges and universities were in a full-on building boom, creating dormitories and recreation centers to satisfy the newest generation of self-involved college student. The Internet boom made a lot of people wealthy, and that led to a golden age in college giving. Much of the money was directed to individual buildings that captured the imagination of the donors. But now, students aren’t influenced the way they once were by fancy new dormitories. Moreover, the students of the future are much more likely to take classes from several different institutions. On average, the students will be older, and may have other complications, like full-time jobs or families, that will make them see a college campus as immaterial to their needs.

In light of that, the majority of colleges and universities need to put a great deal of thinking into how to make their campuses more relevant to students. Some universities, such as the University of Colorado, are following the learning communities model followed most famously by the Ivy Leagues schools. More universities need to think of integrating student living with learning.

The residential institution will not necessarily disappear because the old model of living and learning on campus won’t disappear. Most 18-year-olds need the discipline, encouragement and support of professors or graduate assistants.  Unfortunately, the costs at these institutions will be prohibitive to most students, so this experience will likely fall to the more affluent.

Residential colleges and universities will have a market if they add value to the residential experience.  Residential colleges will need to formally recognize the skills and knowledge gained through the out-of-class experiences.  These skills include leadership, teamwork, public speaking, management and so forth.

We can imagine a “hybrid residential college” where most of the courses are online offerings from the nations’ greatest universities or instructors, but at each college, mentors of advisors work with the students to insure that they have a rich out-of-class experience, and that the learning continues in all kinds of creative ways after the lecture is over.

Along with rethinking student living space, colleges should also reconfigure learning spaces, using modular rooms and furniture to emphasize an openness to interdisciplinary study. Colleges should have meeting rooms of many different sizes, from 2 to 200, acknowledging that learning takes place in all kinds of groups.
Overall, universities need to be much more realistic about the way they view their campuses. Some have more space than they can use, and should consider selling some property or partnering with community groups or other colleges to make sure the space is gainfully used. The campus master plan — at most institutions, a 10-year planning document — should be subject to constant updating and change. Some universities are better at this than others.

Universities should focus on what parts of their campus hold the deepest meaning for their students, their alumni, and other constituencies. Those areas of campus are likely to hold in some way the memory of college that is so precious to many, and what they will carry with them the rest of their lives. Those areas of campus should be considered almost sacred.

But even within the most important parts of campus, colleges need to be aware of the statement they are making with their buildings. They should continue the commitment they have shown in recent years to sustainability, whether it takes the form of green roofs, composting toilets, or recycled building materials. The way that colleges use their buildings is watched closely by their idealistic students, and a commitment to reducing energy costs allows the college to make a visible and lasting commitment to ethics and integrity that will likely make much more of an impression than anything a professor or president ever says. With students spending less time on campuses, those limited chances to make an impression are more important than ever.


The Future Graduate School

Below is the presentation we gave recently at the Conference of Southern Graduate Schools on “The Graduate School of the Future”. There is some good data, as well as insights applicable to graduate schools as well as higher education generally.

College of 2020: The Future Graduate School

The Higher Education Marketing Crisis


At colleges and universities across the country, marketing departments are failing to differentiate their institutions in an increasingly complex and competitive higher education market.  There has never been a more critical time in higher education to stand out – the economic pressures are more stark and the race to get the best students, faculty, and resources has become more and more competitive. Branding continues to be a very hot topic in higher education, as many institutions struggle to find the right way to discover and articulate their distinct market position and competitively brand their institutions.

Over the next ten years, the strength of an institution’s marketing and branding will be the differentiator for which universities survive and thrive. Some colleges will close while students and faculty will continue to try to get into the school with the most recognizable name and valuable brand. So what’s the hope for everyone else? The biggest thing colleges can do is to claim and occupy their own distinct market position – the way to stand out is to do something that no one else does and be the best at it. Then you have to brand it, market it, and sell it. So who is going to help you do that? Well you see, that’s the problem – most marketing firms create pretty ads that look the same and say similar things to everyone else. Most marketing firms have no real marketing strategy.

Over the past year, I have noticed a sharp rise in the number of strategic marketing companies that provide brand related services – from copy, to logos, and advertisements. On their blogs and at their conference booths they talk a lot about “strategy” but when you dig a bit deeper it’s easy to see that “strategy” really means “communication” and not “branding” or “competitive” strategy. They will help you say something, but more than likely it won’t mean anything. Have you seen the recent Capella University ad campaign built around the word  “Matter.” What does that mean? It tells you nothing about the institution or what makes it unique. In fact, I would go as far to say that it offends prospective students – the only way you “Matter” is if you attend Capella. These campaigns, and others where you typically see a bunch of stock photos of students smiling, are happening all over the country and they are a symptom of the higher education marketing crisis.

So what’s a good example? Take a look at this brand positioning strategy for a top business school in China, The Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business. The goal was to position CKGSB as not only a top business school in China, but as a top global business school that has an unrivaled understanding of business in China and the most influential alumni network. The “Know What’s Next” campaign art and taglines are conceptually meant to bridge East and West and showcase the increasing importance and role of the CKGSB in the global “one economy.”

In order for institutions to increase their competitiveness there needs to be a direct and distinct correlation between the product, the experience, and the positioning. Most strategic marketing companies don’t analyze what really makes an institution distinct in the market – from the product, to experience, to outcomes, to impact, to perceptions.  “Strategy” needs to go beyond communications and perception management. Institutions need to sell what makes them unique. Higher education is becoming more and more market driven – so sell something different. Not just the same pretty picture and cheeky tagline.


A Good Fit: Rethinking College Admissions

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I have a friend who used to be the brand manager for Kingsford charcoal. One day, he was asking his team: “Who is our competition?” His team piped up: Royal Oak? Store brands?

No, my friend replied. Our competition isn’t another charcoal. It’s the gas grill. Cooking out is a lifestyle choice, with all of kinds of positive feelings associated with it — time with friends, fun, fresh air. And our potential customers are switching to gas, and getting all those same benefits without ever purchasing our product again. To keep its customers, Kingsford had to talk about authenticity, smoky flavor, the benefits of the real grilling experience rather than the rather soul-less expedience of gas grills.

Similarly, I was talking with a marketer for a chain of grocery stores in St. Louis. Who was the competition? Not the other four significant chains in that market. Their competition, as they saw it, was the proliferation of places to buy groceries: Target, Wal-Mart, every gas station with a mini-mart that sold milk and hamburger buns. The grocery store’s position was being diluted by all the other ways customers could get the same products while making fewer stops.

These are just examples of different ways of thinking about your markets. So, colleges and universities, who is your competition for students?

Is it the peer schools or neighboring institutions you have always competed against? Undoubtedly, yes, but to a lesser degree all the time. As the competitive landscape changes in higher education, students are not so much comparing colleges against one another as they are thinking about how college fits into their lifestyles. In a world of many choices, convenience is an ever-more-important factor.

In a previous blog post, we posited that when colleges take to heart that the competition in higher education has changed forever, it will allow them to think about their various operations in new and innovative ways. The competition is changing all the time — to really understand how and why students might think to come to your college, you need to think of college as a transaction in the same way they do.

The changing needs and desires of student for access to college courses will only grow in coming years. More students will attend college part-time, online, take courses from multiple universities, and jump into and out of college. Students simultaneously will want to be enrolled in some courses online and others in person.

For the sake of stability and planning, it will be imperative for most colleges to continue to identify a core of students who will attend college full-time and make use of the faculty, classrooms, libraries, and other facilities that colleges have created. However, this more itinerant population of students must be catered to as well if a college is to be seen as progressive and flexible, qualities that will be increasingly in demand.

Colleges need to remember who their competition is, and realize that they are competing for a student’s attention with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other options. The first job for traditional colleges is to drill down and define what makes them different, and is a unifying theme for going forward. (More on this in the next blog post on Marketing)

Perhaps most importantly, colleges need to get better at finding students who are a good fit, and are likely to stay at the college they choose. Many smaller colleges are in the habit of paying tens of thousands of dollars to consulting and marketing firms who find potential students for them. But as many as three-quarters of those students don’t return for a second year. And the process  of churning up a new class starts all over again. If a good student fit could be identified in the first place, focus could shift to finding out what students need to succeed and then doing it, rather than the overwhelming focus on the pipeline of students.

In the next decade, the number of high school graduates will essentially stay the same. So colleges need to find new student markets to tap:

  • Reach out to minority students. Research shows that, at some point, probably just after 2020, minority students will outnumber white students for the first time. The fastest-growing minority group is Hispanics, but they disproportionately attend community colleges and for-profit institutions. The major reason is that Hispanics are frequently less-prepared for college-level work. High-school graduation rates are much lower for members of every minority group except Asian-Americans. Colleges need to reach out to these groups in many ways, if ways that emphasize success. Could colleges explicitly offer a five-year program, in which the first year is entirely remedial?
  • Adult learners. Through 2018, projections show that the population of college students age 18 to 24 will increase by 9 percent, but the population of students age 25 to 34 will increase by 25 percent, and for students older than 35, by 12 percent. How much is your institution doing to target adult students, and what more could it be doing? Adult students usually attend part-time and often don’t come on campus at all. So they are not much of a stress on campus facilities. Yet many colleges are startlingly insensitive to them. Colleges don’t give them a break on tuition, don’t have counseling programs that address the unique needs to adult students, or even give them places to store belongings or meet similar-age students when they do come to campus. Colleges need to think how they are reaching out to this increasingly important constituency.

Perhaps most importantly, colleges need to really go deep inside themselves and think as a community about what their competitive advantages are, what they do especially well, and how can they communicate that to their potential students.

The market for college educations has fundamentally changed, and, increasingly, so has the way your customers think about how they will attain it. Again, colleges, who are you? What makes you special? In a world full of gas, what’s your charcoal?


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