In his recent well-crafted article, “Higher Education Seeks Answers to Leaner Years,” Jon Marcus of The Hechinger Report has provided a resonant clarion call for higher education leaders. Marcus quotes one administrator who acknowledges that, “We inherited a system largely conceived in the 1960’s…but times, society and students have all changed dramatically.” Marcus describes an industry wide seismic shift that continues and has not yet resolved.

So where this is all headed might not be apparent for quite some time. What is clear, however, is that the current model for providing education and degree qualification is facing huge decreases in demand and rising costs of doing business well above the level of inflation. Those two market keys signify that higher education is no longer viable in its current form. The question with which schools must wrestle is whether they are Blockbuster Video or Old Spice.

Blockbuster Video was entrenched in its video rental model and was late to the digital subscription market. While Netflix was skyrocketing, Blockbuster stores were closing. Old Spice, on the other hand, while remaining true to its core product, recognized it was outmoded and revamped to communicate with its next-generation market, successfully building market share. Blockbuster’s product was no longer desired in the market. Neither was Old Spice’s. Blockbuster didn’t adjust quick enough. Old Spice did.

Jon Marcus observes that one currently effective maneuver for universities and colleges is merging in order to reduce costs. While this does relieve some of the market pressure, mergers aren’t changing the game enough to keep up with the changing market. They offer a Band-Aid for institutions that can participate, but are not a resolution. While the next generation model of higher education may not yet be easily identified (if it was easy, everybody would be doing it), there are three key ingredients that I expect will be part of the recipe for survival and success:

(1) Recognition that the market is changing – building market share is one approach, but if the market is changing so rapidly and so significantly that it really becomes a new market altogether, then building market share in a dying market is pointless. New wine doesn’t work in old wineskins.

(2) Agility and ability to change – only those that are able to change quickly will be able to weather the changing market. Those that are slow to recognize the urgency or that require more time to retrofit will likely dry up before they can implement the next model. Those who move to new wineskins quicker will have a much better chance of being able to make new wine.

(3) Proper planning for implementing the core in the new era – those that stick to their core (mission) and recognize how to implement it and bring that core to market will have an excellent opportunity to find a seat when the music stops. What’s inside those new wineskins matters.

 

The temptation for higher education leaders – more so now than ever – is to chase what appears to work for someone else. The recipe for success in next-gen higher education will likely not be found in following the leader. That works in a booming market, as there are always some crumbs that fall from the table, but it doesn’t work nearly as well in a shrinking market. Thus, as it has always been in any business, success is usually associated with providing a quality product that is needed and that is presented well to those who need it.

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