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Brand Is Not Enough: Innovation Critical for Elite Institutions

Brand Is Not Enough: Innovation Critical for Elite Institutions
Brand may bring people to the door, but innovation is what gets students to enroll and ensures that they graduate and succeed in the workforce.
Last week I was lucky enough to moderate a panel at the Goldman Sachs Global Education Conference hosted at Harvard. My panel was titled Non Traditional No More, a nod to the fact that 73 percent of all American higher education participants qualify as “non-traditional” under Department Of Education guidelines.

Our theme was that the greatest change in higher education is not being driven by technology, the Internet, policy or innovation, but rather by supply and demand. Specifically, working adult students who must participate in learning within their existing lifestyles, not as a full-time student, dominate global demand. In addition, in the USA and the Western World, traditional-age students are in long-term decline based on demographic change—and in most of the rest of the world the physical campuses don’t exist in large enough numbers to serve either the growing traditional or emerging non-traditional students.

Innovations that are underway in lecture capture video, online learning, active learning, hybrid online and other teaching and learning modes are market driven. MOOCs, and other free online modes appear to be in response to technology for low unit cost and may or may not prove to be sustainable innovations.

Brand remains the dominant driver of choice in the market where young traditional-age students neither independently make the school choice nor have much say in changing that choice. However, innovation is dominating where adult students buy their own education with their own funds and switch if they are not happy. To serve that 73 percent of the market well, schools need to think of students as customers. This means blending brand and innovation for the best offering, services and value.

What does this mean to the traditional university going online and taking on the role of innovator? To Harvard’s Extension School, which offers 47 undergraduate and graduate degrees all priced lower than most public four-year university’s in-state price, it means we must start with adult part-time student success as our strategic anchor and accept that student success requires high-quality courses and programs and high-quality customer service.

Our brand will bring them to our door, but only our innovation will get them through the door as students, and then out that door as graduates.

Technology lets us scale lectures and improve our active-mastery online education. In these courses, students demonstrate competence with the material and the courses are engineered to provide instant feedback and return to missed concepts.

However, technology does not ensure learning or quality student service. These still require high-touch interactions with qualified teachers and mentors.

My prescription for success is this:

  • Choose the people you serve very carefully
  • Provide great programs and classes that your narrow target audience values
  • Provide superior academic advising and life coaching
  • Measure everything and continuously improve.

The bottom line is that if Harvard Extension School can offer an entire undergraduate degree for $40,000 and a graduate degree for $25,000 — utilizing mostly Harvard faculty and affiliates and be economically self-sustaining — why can’t every public university?

Brand and innovation may be the decision drivers in different markets today, but the great universities of the world need to get past traditional organizational challenges and serve the higher education needs of the 20 million Americans who never finished college and the two billion global citizens who seek a better life through education.

Call that brand leverage or innovation leverage, it does not matter, the market needs to be served and it will take all of us.