Published on 2013/06/27

Addressing Commoditization: A Continuing Education Perspective

Addressing Commoditization: A Continuing Education Perspective
Prospective students — both traditional and non-traditional — are increasingly seeing higher education as a commodity, with different institutions differentiated by cost and not much else. It’s up to institutions to step away from the pack and effectively communicate the advantages their institution can offer, and in many cases continuing education leaders can help their institution stand out.

Think about your favorite university or college. In all likelihood, its marketing materials highlight the quality of instruction, the beautiful campus, the successful athletic team, the faculty-to-student ratio and the amazing student experience. Websites and interactive viewbooks didn’t exist in the 17th to 18th century when many universities were founded, but the selling points haven’t changed much since then. Armed with comparative information in the electronic age, consumers have significantly changed the way they make major purchasing decisions for cars, homes, electronics, insurance and nearly every type of consumer good or service imaginable.

Is education a commodity too? If it’s not, then it’s our job to prove to prospective students that it isn’t.

In the past 18 months, MOOCs (massive open online courses) have received significant press coverage worldwide, and the implications for commoditization in the education sector are tremendous. The core concept behind the movement is to open the doors of learning to anyone, anytime, anywhere, free of charge. It’s the type of disruptive idea that could potentially lead to a sea change in the education industry. But revolution is messy. The model of MOOC platform providers teaming up with traditional universities to deliver the content is already creating dichotomies;

  • Embracing mass commoditization and selectivity at the same time;
  • Touting small student-to-faculty ratios on campus yet delivering courses where students outnumber faculty, sometimes by tens of thousands to one;
  • Ultimately, giving away educational content for free while charging matriculating students thousands of dollars to attend another class taught by the same instructor

It’s easy to see why a prospective student might start to think all universities and colleges are interchangeable.

So what does this mean for the future of higher education? The advent and evolution of MOOCs is exciting to watch, but ultimately the commoditization movement will force institutions to deal with the issue of truly differentiating themselves from one another. Units focused on professional and continuing education, adult learning, outreach and online modalities have a unique perspective that could be the key to this impending issue.

MOOCs may now be forcing the issue of commoditization in the traditional education sector, but non-traditional units have long been accustomed to the competitive marketplace and often are expected to be self-supporting or receive minimal operational funding. Working with adult learners who are juggling jobs and family commitments — and often paying out of pocket for their education with no financial aid — provides a clear window into the expectations of prospective adult students. Non-traditional students don’t just compare one or two schools in geographic proximity. They often compare classroom, online, hybrid, for-profit and non-profit universities, community colleges, associations and other public or private entities. Providing a value proposition that sets your school apart from myriad other providers is not just desirable but essential for success.

Adult learners value their time as well as their money. Superior customer service, flexible class schedules that minimize their time away from work and family, convenient delivery methods, competitive price points and course content applicability are just a few examples of the expectations of prospective adult students.

Our job as educators is not only to provide the benefits our students are seeking, but also to effectively communicate differentiators through our marketing and interactions with the public so prospective students have the information they need to make a decision best fitting their educational goals. Prospective students may view higher education through the lens of commoditization, but ultimately, it’s our job to provide an experience that sets our schools apart from the pack.

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Readers Comments

Eric Csergo 2013/06/27 at 9:27 am

Institutions will start to rely more on their continuing and professional education units to provide advice on how to differentiate themselves. At my institution, they’ve brought someone from the CE unit into the upper administration, which has created new opportunities for knowledge sharing. This change was made about eight months ago so it’s still too early to see the effects, but I will be closely monitoring the situation as it’s quite interesting to see where we could go.

Simon Pickering 2013/06/27 at 12:16 pm

It’s becoming more difficult for institutions to differentiate because, while technology has allowed institutions to have a higher profile, it also means their innovations are constantly in the limelight. Anything that is unique or successful can be seen by others and quickly and easily replicated at those institutions.

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