How Private Colleges Can Innovate, Compete, and Win

By David Rowe September 28, 2021 Blog Post

Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.

Mission: SPACE at Disney’s Epcot makes me seasick. With a nauseating combination of video, centrifuges, and hydraulics, the theme park version of a flight simulator gets closer to galaxy galloping G-forces than I ever care to be in real life. More power to Elon, Richard, and Jeff!

What’s disarming about the ride is that when you step up to it or look back at it on your way out, it is just a box on a set of poles. Even a non-engineer can begin to see how the forces and human factors interact to provide the sensational experience of hurtling toward Mars.

In many ways, those of us in higher education have been on a destabilizing ride for a decade or more…and it is not a simulator! Luckily, we were strapped in when the pandemic hit, and we were ready to ramp up from what Disney aptly calls the Green Mission to the more intense Orange Mission.

It’s not clear to me that the ride ends anytime soon. Even when the acute effects of the pandemic fade or simply integrate themselves into a permanently revised SOP, most schools will still be at least on the Green Mission.

Remember, higher education was disrupted before COVID-19. And it will still be after the emergency federal assistance is long gone. So, it’s time to do what we teach our students to do…cognitively step outside the ride that we are on and critically assess the box, the wires, and the pistons so we can better comprehend what’s bouncing us around.

The late Clayton Christensen described well the forces that have been acting on most of us in higher education, particularly in the independent sector. We are being challenged from above, from below, and from afar (The Innovative University 2011).

On the expense side, institutions are locked into buildings, centers, tenure contracts, and an endless pursuit of next-level rankings. On the income side, those full-pay students attend a small grouping of institutions or the practically free land grant universities. We have been competing “up” and we’re losing.

And while we fight market-share gravity, cheaper, more convenient, speedier completion, options swoop in and hit us from “below.” I don’t mean this in a pejorative sense, but in a pricing and cost structure sense. Some have pivoted to compete but without realigning their cost structures. It would be easier to swim 50 meters in full football pads.

We can’t afford enough “up” resources to compete “up,” and we have too many of the “up” resources to compete “down.”

And then Google and IBM stop requiring degrees! Coding camps turn into career paths and gap years turn into apprenticeships. Suddenly people are finding other ways to get their tickets to the economy punched and outcompete our graduates who are scrambling for gig work. Instinctively we know that robotics and AI will make the arts and sciences more valuable, but we haven’t figured out how to sell that yet.

All the “best kept secret” institutions are no longer only too far from the interstate, our push for differentiation has been met with a series of commoditizing technology-fueled and tax-funded market forces that leave our traditional approaches underappreciated, undersubscribed, and underfunded.

While competing “up” and competing “down,” we also find ourselves disrupted from afar, from outside our self-perpetuating peer-accredited sector.

We are boxed in, but now that we’ve seen the machinery at work we can adapt. Here are three ways to move from disrupted to disrupter:

  1. Emphasize: To win at the “up-market” game, look “down.” Who sees you as upstream and in what areas? Double down on those strengths where you know that you can outresource and outcompete others in your market who are trying to keep up with you. Emphasize those in your strategic plan and marketing.
  2. Experiment: Create a separate business unit to experiment with low-cost and low-price delivery while insulating your current operations from the budget and decision-making processes as well as from the successes and failures of the pilot programs. Mainstream the successes and iterate on the failures.
  3. Expand: Take your accredited mission statement glasses off and look at the world around you through entrepreneurial lenses. What unmet need is there in your community, region, or market that you can meet with a revenue positive deployment of your existing resources? Meet it. Expand your understanding of that historic mission in light of new economic realities.

Explore more deeply the ways that you can emphasize your strengths, experiment safely with new programs, and expand your offerings to open new markets.  Join me on October 14 at 11 a.m. ET for a complimentary webinar: From Disrupted to Disrupter: How Private Colleges and Universities can Innovate, Compete and Win.

Unfortunately, like the technical fixes most colleges employ, the computer panel on the dash in Mission: SPACE provides little more than the illusion of control. Minor adjustments won’t stabilize the ride. Sitting back and visualizing the system at work, though, might calm your institutional inner ear long enough to begin thinking about redesigning the ride altogether or at least help you tolerate it long enough to exit through the gift shop. When you do, come find me. I’ll be on Soarin’.

Happy 50th Walt Disney World!

David Rowe, PhD, is AGB Consulting’s practice leader for private higher education and foundations. He is the president of The Windermere Group and principal at The Development President. Previously, he served as the interim president of Lancaster Theological Seminary as well as the president of Lake Highland Preparatory School and Centenary College of Louisiana.

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