Episode 147: It’s a New College World, Or Is It?

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It’s the middle of December, and those of you with teenagers who are facing application deadlines in the first week of January either see that the end is in sight or are pulling out your hair.  Whichever it is, I am not sure how much more we can do for you.  I will make our standard offer, nonetheless:  If you are wrestling with a question about a college application or trying to figure out another college or two to add to your list–yes, it’s not too late–then, give us a call.  Quick, free advice is available for the next two weeks.  I am guessing that those of you who are our regular listeners might have had enough advice from us already about making your teenager’s long and short lists of colleges and researching those college options.  But, we are here if you need us.

But, before we take an end-of-year break, I thought you might like to look into the future of U.S. higher education.  Admittedly, this future might come too late for your current senior, but you might have another kid or two at home.  If so, this episode could be for you.

1. Who Is Clayton Christensen?

The prolific author and thinker who is giving us this picture of the future of higher education is none other than Clayton M. Christensen, a well-known Harvard Business School professor.  He is famous in the business community for his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business, in which he espoused his theory of disruptive innovation.  The back cover of the book explains it this way:

In this revolutionary bestseller, innovation expert Clayton M. Christensen says outstanding companies can do everything right and still lose their market leadership?or worse, disappear altogether. And not only does he prove what he says, but he tells others how to avoid a similar fate.

Focusing on “disruptive technology,” Christensen shows why most companies miss out on new waves of innovation. Whether in electronics or retailing, a successful company with established products will get pushed aside unless managers know when to abandon traditional business practices. Using the lessons of successes and failures from leading companies, The Innovator’s Dilemma presents a set of rules for capitalizing on the phenomenon of disruptive innovation. (quoted from the book cover)

Then, a decade later in 2008, Christensen became the guy that educators loved to quote when he wrote Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, with co-authors Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson.  Well-respected psychologist, Harvard professor, and author Howard Gardner wrote this in praise of Disrupting Class on its back cover:  “After a barrage of business books that purport to ‘fix’ American education, at last a book that speaks thoughtfully and imaginatively about what genuinely individualized education can be like and how to bring it about.”  How to bring it about was, of course, through innovative uses of technology, including really good online instruction.

2. Christensen’s Latest Vision

That brings us to November 15 of this year and an article on CNBC’s website entitled “Harvard Business School professor: Half of American colleges will be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years.”  But, here’s some background.  In her article, Abigail Hess writes this about Christensen’s 2011 book, The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out:

. . . Christensen and co-author Henry Eyring analyze the future of traditional universities, and conclude that online education will become a more cost-effective way for students to receive an education, effectively undermining the business models of traditional institutions and running them out of business. (quoted from the article)

In the Q and A with the authors on the Amazon website, they say this about their book:

We wanted to show how new strategies, many of them driven by online technology, make it possible to serve more students at lower cost while also increasing quality and improving the learning experience–something we saw in practice within our own university homes. Since then, the world has moved into a major economic downturn. Slow economic growth, high government and household debt, rising college tuition, declining graduation rates, and growing competition from the rapidly growing for-profit higher education sector combined to create a renewed sense of urgency for our message. We could see how the same online learning technologies that can benefit traditional institutions can also disrupt them. So, our message became cautiously optimistic. Online learning, we believe, will either disrupt traditional universities and colleges or create opportunities for them to serve more students and lead the country to greater prosperity. It depends on whether they cling to a model that has changed little in the past 150 years or embrace learning innovations made possible by new technology. (quoted from the website)

The authors continue:

We assert that colleges and universities must break with tradition and find innovative, less costly ways of performing their uniquely valuable functions, allowing them to once again become responsive to the needs of learners. . . .

Online technology makes a college or university vastly more attractive to a wide subset of students. It gives many people a second chance at learning–i.e. those who cannot afford a traditional college education, those who do not have the flexibility to take part in a full plate of coursework, and late bloomers or dropouts who have fallen behind and now have the chance to catch up.

But online learning doesn’t just offer cheaper education for the masses. It improves the student learning experience across the spectrum by allowing remedial to elite students to learn at their own pace and on their own timetable. Students can receive a fully customized education adapted to their own individual learning style, something that even the world’s best one-on-one tutor would have trouble systematically emulating. Students also benefit from a full array of choices about where, when, what and how they learn. And they can access the best teachers and information faster, connect with more global networks, and all in all consume a much more attractive [product]. In addition, online learning is a cost-saver to the university, which saves on the expense of building and managing a brick-and-mortar facility.

Combine the lower cost of delivery with the lower cost of attendance, and it’s clear that online learning is a major cost advantage. Therefore, we urge traditional colleges and universities to adopt these technologies. (quoted from the website)

I think it is critical to note here that Christensen believes that online higher education is not just a way to make college cheaper or more accessible for more students, but also a way to “[improve] the student learning experience across the spectrum.”  That might be the key here–because I think most of us would agree that online education can make college cheaper and more accessible to students who would otherwise be unable to attend.  But how many of us agree that online education can actually “improve the learning experience”?  I have to say that I don’t agree with that yet, but perhaps the time will come.

Ms. Hess continues in her article:

Christensen is not alone in thinking that online educational resources will cause traditional colleges and universities to close. The U.S. Department of Education and Moody’s Investors Service project that in the coming years, closure rates of small colleges and universities will triple, and mergers will double. (quoted from the article)

So, will online higher education cause small struggling colleges that can’t make ends meet to close; or, rather, will it allow some to stay open by helping them offer cheaper courses and fewer expensive facilities and, therefore, attract more students; or, more generally, will it simply improve the landscape of higher education options available to college students?  Maybe it will do some of all of these.

In recent years, as Marie and I have advised graduating high school seniors going off to college (or staying home for college nearby), we have shied away from advising them to take online courses.  We have worried that it might be hard for kids new to the college scene to stay disciplined enough to keep up with online coursework when there is no required attendance at classes or, at least, expectation of attendance at classes.  And yet, maybe this is the way of the future–a disrupted future–even for first-time, more traditional college students.

No one might know this better than Marie, who has developed online college courses and taught online college courses and taken online graduate-level college courses.  So, is it time to change our advice?  I actually have a longtime colleague who is establishing an online college, complete with full degree programs, as we speak.  Maybe Ben is exactly right.  Stay tuned.

3. Happy Holidays!

We hope that you enjoy your December holidays and that you have a fantastic New Year’s–free from too much college application hysteria.  We are going to take two weeks off, as I fly out to Alaska on business and then Phoenix for a family holiday gathering, two places about as different as you can get.  We will return on January 4 with a new episode.  It is going to be our best one yet.  Happy holidays and welcome to 2018!

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