The Band Plays On

Band PlayingTwo distinctly different views of reality were on display at the 2014 Society of College and University Planning conference: traditional and nontraditional – bundled and unbundled. The cognitive dissonance was there for all to see and hear.

The traditional view bundles residential experience with marching bands and the book-lined study. The nontraditional view unbundles all of this, offering credit hours and progress toward a degree without dorms, touchdowns or libraries. This all makes sense as long as they are serving different audiences – different customers interested in different value propositions. When they need to appeal to the same customer this cognitive dissonance will take the form of economic competition to squeeze what Rich DeMillo calls the middle.

Traditional – At the SCUP conference, the traditional bundled view was represented by a former university president. He saw the status quo of the traditional residential campus as alive and well, even thriving. He acknowledged the usual budget challenges but realized that his institution and others had weathered such storms for decades if not centuries. He saw the situation as normal and essentially healthy.

The institutions he was familiar with have more applicants than they can admit. Their brands are strong, and the quality of their educational product continues to increase, at least as measured by the usual subjective measures.

Nontraditional The nontraditional, unbundled view was expressed by an educational start-up entrepreneur. His firm guarantees transferability of course credits to a growing number of institutions. Transferability is not a function of geography. He represented a perspective of an expanding market in which students are customers, and institutions scramble to provide educational value at competitive prices.

For traditionalists, colleges and universities retain premium brands at premium prices. For nontraditionalists, offerings provide an accredited product at a fair price, without rigid schedules or the trappings of place.

Traditionalists see their core customers as 18- to 24-year-olds and imagine that the non-traditionalists don’t have much to offer that core. In the language of business, traditionalists see market segments that do not overlap. As long as this is true, and the customers of each are different, the status quo will hold.

Change Even now the picture is changing. The overlap of these markets is beginning to occur, and it doesn’t benefit the traditional campus bundle. This dynamic is beginning to play out across higher education from State U and bastions of academic excellence to the hybrid models and online start-ups.

As traditional students migrate to online offerings, they tug at the financial viability of places they still want to call home for more than a few semesters.

Data are limited, but I am beginning to document a declining use of traditionally derived credits even at State U. In the last ten years at least 5% of the total enterprise has been relocated to online. The change is continuing. It is a trend that is gaining momentum.

Some disciplines resist the online move. Architecture, lab science and music are examples. Yet even there, hybrid forms are emerging. Other programs – for example in the health sciences – have already moved half their traditional course hours online. For now, the residential institutions offer these courses, but as transferability rises, institutional viability will be tested.

A logical response to this form of testing will be a reconsideration of the capacity of the institution. As space becomes available, it will be possible to admit ever more students for a more transient campus experience. This experience will rely less on dorms, marching bands and book-lined study space. This experience will rely on the creative use of the most precious product of the campus: shared space and time with motivated learners and engaging teachers.

Impacts The migration of courses and credits to the placelessness of online activity will make additional physical capacity available. Forms include fourth and fifth generation MOOCs, classroom flipping, performance/experience based certification, or other off-campus/on-line offerings. We are just beginning to see the impacts.

Seeing impacts and responding to them are two different things. Typical facilities utilization models are based on obsolete metrics. They were developed in the middle of the 20th century – before cell, web and wireless printing. These pre-digital-revolution metrics were derived from stationary work and learning. They are inadequate for the fluid and changing nature of higher education, even at the most traditional of institutions.

Disregard The traditionalists may disregard all of changes they see. They might argue there are still more students applying than they can accommodate. They might believe they will always be in a seller’s market. If the traditionalists are right, their brand or state support or endowment or all of the above will keep them solvent and secure.

If the waves of technological innovation are not an existential challenge – just another round of budget rebalancing – then by all means, the band should play on.

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2 thoughts on “The Band Plays On

  1. Cost is such an important factor now for so many- if online is cheaper (not yet at many places but coming) then many students will opt for the low cost option out of necessity. Very likely cost competition nationwide will occur as well, especially for introductory and elective courses that are readily transferable.

  2. Part of the momentum toward the non-traditional academic track is spurred on by higher education focused on future employment – will higher education help me get a job, or a better job. The cognitive dissonance between the job focused and the educationally focused college student finds itself expressed in many of the paradoxical promotional literature distributed by colleges and universities. “90% of our graduates get jobs immediately following graduation.” while at the same time lauding the academic achievements of its graduates. Many schools will need to determine who they want to be in the future, for as we all know, you can’t be all things to all people, regardless of your name or size of your endowment.

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