I had the privilege of being invited to deliver the closing keynote at last week's EDUCAUSE Research Group's annual symposium. EDUCAUSE is higher education's IT-focused user organization; the Research Group (known as ECAR, for EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research) focuses on taking a longer view of the pressing issues regarding higher education. Its yearly symposium offers an opportunity for members to learn and reflect on how to help their institutions respond to changing conditions and technology developments.
The symposium kicked off with a presentation by Michael Horn, Executive Director of the Innosight Institute (the commercial company associated with Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator's Dilemma), discussing disruptive trends in higher education. Essentially, he said that traditional higher education is facing disruption because it overserves most of its constituency. Overserving customers is an important theme within Christensen's work, because it is associated with expensive or complex products that are unsuitable for many potential users due to expense or difficulty of use. Most of us have experienced the frustration of buying an electronic consumer good that has endless features and complicated controls, making it hard to do the simplest tasks. As an example of this phenomenon, the recent explosion of use of Flip Video-type products evinces the overserving by established video camcorders.
Higher education, according to Horn, has grown to overserve many potential students. It is an expensive bundle of items, many of which are not needed by a large percentage of students. Examples of the unnecessary items include well-appointed gyms, extensive athletic programs, and so on. Many of these improvements have been caused by a perceived need to meet the competition -- if one small liberal arts school builds a very attractive gym, others feel the need to offer similar amenities.
Overall, the cost of higher education has grown dramatically -- certainly greater than the rate of inflation. Colleges and universities, locked into the equivalent of an arms race, have invested large sums in making their campuses and offerings more attractive. The net effect is that the cost of education, adjusted for inflation, is at an all-time high.
An increasing number of students choose to go to state institutions, which eschew such offerings. And many others attend community colleges for the first two years of higher education. While these institutions lack the appointments of private colleges, they deliver at a much lower price point. In essence, students are adopting more convenient, cost-effective, and easily accessed teaching institutions. These developments don't even touch on the growth of for-profit schools like Phoenix, which focus on convenience and speed of delivery. In Christensen's parlance, the incumbent offerings are being disrupted, done in by overserved consumers adopting new, more satisfactory offerings.
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