Holding the Middle by Nibbling the Edges

One of the consequences of the e-pill scenario that I painted in my Ephemeralization post is the increased threat to colleges and universities in the “middle.”

Most American colleges and universities lie in the middle between the seventy or so top institutions that are wealthy enough to set their own agendas — even in tough financial times — and the proprietary, for-profit universities whose growth seems to be unperturbed by the financial meltdown of the last couple of years.

For many universities in the middle, online instruction threatens to hollow out their value. This is especially true for those institutions whose courses have been charted to follow the elites. When I raised the possibility of new kinds of technology enabled courses, the reactions were predicable:  lots of reasons that the online experience was vastly inferior to in-person instruction.  If that’s the value that the middle is holding on to, then the rapid embrace of online courses by top institutions is a real threat as larger numbers of the best students enroll in elite online courses and  price-sensitive students continue to choose the customer-friendly, jobs-oriented online programs at proprietary colleges.

Now in today’s The Choice blog at the New York Times, Rachel Gross asks:

“What if you could graduate from an elite university without ever stepping foot on campus — if instead, you had merely to open your laptop?”

The implications are staggering:  no more artificial size limits for entering freshman classes; elite curricula repackaged; focus on market share. Can an elite institution enroll fifty thousand students?  In 2000, executives at Hewlett-Packard asked whether HP could profitably produce and sell a forty-nine dollar printer.  They are really the same question.

In both cases, the answer is yes, but only if you can figure out a way to grab and hold increased market share with increased quality and service. As HP found out, you cannot turn your value proposition upside down by nibbling around the edges.  You have to be prepared to dramatically change your business model.

If Rachel Gross is right, then top-ranked institutions are already making this leap.  No more arguing over the drawbacks of online instruction or snarky comments about the low-brow nature of the  for-profits.  That means some at the top have already figured out new business models. If so, they are not talking about it. Whether it is a razor-and-razor blade platform, a cost-cutting approach to commoditized courseware, or a hybridized delivery model, every advance at the top threatens the stability in the middle.  I don’t think many will survive by nibbling around the edges.

1 comment
  1. Michael Miller said:

    Some of the folks I work with have compared our business – a large, for-profit research firm – to a virtual university. With this in mind some of us are pushing towards the development of “curriculum” modeled programs that take the client through a 101-201-301 class type progression towards certification and competency in certain fields like project/portfolio/program management, security, I&O Management, Sourcing & Vendor Management, etc. We’re finding that this can be done, and with the right mix of online reading, testing modules, webinars, participative vid/teleconferences, and quarterly or biannual onsite meetings/workshops (brought to cities where we have high concentrations of participants), we can provide an education of sorts to our clients. It’s tough rolling these things out though, because when it’s done piecemeal it can create a let-down effect. I like the nibbling at the edges way of putting this, but I can see why people take this approach. The specific tech/tools are often unfamiliar, so we dip our toes into the hot-tub to see if this is going to feel good. At my place of work we started with the tools, and only later did we see how all of this could be combined and integrated into a cohesive and packaged whole, with a serious value proposition. The toe-feel approach won’t show you how good getting into the tub can feel, but it can save you from getting burned. Maybe as more high-end providers show the way (that getting fully into the tub makes sense) the middle will follow, but by then I think they’ll be screwed anyway. The high-end providers will have figured out how to offer something to the middle’s customer base, and there won’t even be a chance for the middle to get into the tub. It’ll be full. Sorry for the continuing hot-tub analogy, it is dumb, but I think it backs up the case that the time for nibbling at the edges has come and gone. These folks either get in the tub now, all the way, or they don’t get in at all.

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