An Abundance of Choices
I have in recent years — and for many different reasons — become a fan of Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind. Pink has a compelling framework for thinking about value. First, can what I am trying to do be done better (or cheaper or faster) by a computer? Second, is what I am offering in demand in an age of abundance? Finally, can what I am trying to do be done more efficiently elsewhere?
As readers know by now, I am working on a WWC book about higher education, and I have found that that the question of value is central to understanding where American higher education is going. Simply put, when there are abundant choices for university education, will traditional universities offer enough value to be able to withstand the coming pressure of a global marketplace?
Here’s why I am concerned. In any market with growing demand and abundant choices, there are only three ways to win: have an unassailable brand, offer the lowest prices, or offer the most compelling value. Even better is to be able to win with both price and value. There is really only a handful — 70 at most — of global brands in higher education, so for most of the 3,000 or so accredited colleges — let’s call this the Middle — it’s a matter of finding the right balance between cost and value. Universities are profligate consumers of resources, so it came as no surprise to read in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education that 58 private colleges have now joined the $50,000 club. Public universities are not far behind. If I am right about winners and losers in global marketplaces, the institutions in the Middle who are at most risk had better get the value equation right. The problem is that most of them don’t have a very clear idea of their value.
That’s significant because half of the world’s population has joined the free market economies in the last fifteen years. For the most part, these are countries with rich educational heritage, that also understand the value of a well-educated labor force. The market for higher education is bubbling as new and established players alike scramble to figure out how to reach hundreds of millions of students:
But the demand for higher education is continuing to increase with more and more students wanting a higher education today than ever before. How can we bridge the gap between increasing demand and decreasing government funding for higher education? The only option is to tap the private sector to participate in the funding and provision of higher education. The process of increasing private participation in higher education has already begun with a few states like Chhattisgarh and Uttaranchal having passed legislation to permit the setting up of private universities in their states. Indeed the private sector has been funding higher education in India for a long time, albeit on a very limited scale. The Birla Institute of Technology and Science at Pilani in Rajasthan, which is funded and run by the Birla Group Trust, became an officially recognised university as far back as 1964. Other institutions like the Manipal Group in Manipal in Karnataka have been running private colleges since 1953 and the Manipal Academy of Higher Education became a deemed university in 1993. Many other self-financing colleges were set up in the early 1990s and a few of them have now become deemed universities.
The problem for American universities is that, since few of them understand their value to traditional students, the chances are slim that they will figure out what the millions of new students want. I can tell you that it’s not football. Nor is it finding ways to “dumb down” an American degree.
In fact the emerging markets are moving aggressively to close down storefront diploma mills.
To the extent that most universities in the Middle concentrate on classroom instruction, the business model of higher education is under tremendous pressure. Although university level training and an aging population will continue to drive demand for classroom instruction, the experience of students in large, multi-section introductory courses is much worse than well-conceived and executed performances by world-class experts who have a passion for communicating their love of subject.
So if few instructors are equipped to compete with the zip of a star from ItunesU™ (see my Dancing with the Stars post) then how does the 21st Century university make itself valuable? Universities must reinvent themselves as creative entities– and they must do it in a way that is smart public policy and is also economically sustainable.
That brings me back to Daniel Pink and what he sees as the elements of creativity:
- Design – Moving beyond function to engage the sense.
- Story – Narrative added to products and services – not just argument.
- Symphony – Adding invention and big picture thinking (not just detail focus).
- Empathy – Going beyond logic and engaging emotion and intuition.
- Play – Bringing humor and light-heartedness to business and products.
- Meaning – Immaterial feelings and values of products.
This is not a bad start for universities that want to redefine their value. This was true in when the Medieval monk Peter Abelard provoked his students to question orthodox thought, and it was true when Thomas Jefferson realized that a university education might result in peer groups that were specialized to the sciences. Charles Vest realized that the value of an MIT education did not lie in the lectures and textbooks but in energy and intellect of the MIT community. It is true that the most immediate way to experience a community is to live within it, but it is not the only way. The technology of social networks and on line communities extends the reach of physical community beyond geographic boundaries.
To deliver on a vision like that American colleges and universities are going to need new leadership, because there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for doing much more than nibbling around the edges.
 Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, Riverhead Books, 2005
 Private Universities in India — Why? How? Education in India, http://prayatna.typepad.com/education/2005/06/private_univers.html
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