Commoditization Helps Institutions Become More Efficient and AffordableJeffery Alejandro | Coordinator of Lifelong Learning Program, East Carolina University
Higher education has long been steeped in tradition and, to many, it should be held in the highest regard. Those individuals often see higher education as a privilege or even a right. They scoff at the idea higher education would be considered a commodity; however, it is just that. A higher education can be bought from more than 6,900 accredited post-secondary institutions across in North America.
In these tough economic times, students (the primary consumer) want the most for their money. They are savvy consumers who research before buying. In order to be competitive, colleges and universities must have a quality product at an affordable price. If not, students will look elsewhere for their educational needs to meet.
Being competitive while receiving less financial support from traditional funding mechanisms (i.e. government funding, endowments or auxiliary enterprises) has become a major financial challenge. While traditional higher education leaders would never think of looking outside their “walls” for immediate solutions to their financial challenges, strong fiscal leaders do. Those leaders understand the commoditization of higher education requires institutions to adopt necessary, cost-saving measures.
Look to External Educational Resource Providers
The largest portion of any institution’s budget is personnel. As budgets start to shrink, so does the number of faculty. The question being asked on many campuses is, “How can we do more with fewer people?” It is not always financially or logistically feasible to pay a faculty member a stipend to develop new content and course materials. Why spend additional time and money when the necessary items have already been created by external providers (i.e. textbook publishers, professional organizations and vendors)? In addition to textbooks, many publishers have course curricula, instructional aids, PowerPoint presentations and exams already developed. Often, these items are provided to institutions at little or no cost once the publisher’s textbooks have been adopted for a course. The instructor simply needs to create a syllabus, which typically does not take long. Another source of course content and materials is professional associations and accrediting agencies. These organizations offer these services so students entering their professions are properly trained to meet industry’s standards.
Do Not Cast Off MOOCs
Another strategy higher education leaders are employing to keep costs down is offering Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). These are online courses structured to accommodate large numbers of students being taught by a single faculty member. In addition to the typical instructional materials (such as videos, case studies and assigned readings), MOOCs provide large-scale interactive participation in the form of discussion forums, chat sessions and panel discussions. It is not uncommon for some universities to join together and offer a series of MOOCs. By collaborating, each institution can decrease its expenses by allowing students to complete some courses within the institution and others externally.
Partner with Online Book Vendors
Another large expense on campuses is bookstores. The cost of staffing, stocking inventory, building maintenance and utilities can be overwhelming. Today, many students turn to online book vendors for lower prices and convenience. Why not partner with those vendors? There are several vendors that will maintain an inventory of an institution’s required textbooks and ship orders to students’ homes. The vendors share a percentage of their profit with the institution in return for partnership.
Find a Strong Marketing Ally
Another cost-saving measure being implemented by some institutions is outsourcing marketing. The old “shotgun” approach of running newspaper ads in every newspaper, placing a college catalog in libraries and visiting every high school is no longer cost effective. We live in a highly technological, global society. Whether good or bad, people turn to the Internet for most of their information. Also, we seldom look for service providers based on our immediate geographic area. We look for providers that meet our specific needs. Today, marketing must reach directly to our intended students. That requires a great deal of research and planning. Often, institutions cannot afford a staff to do these tasks. To save money and time, enlist outside vendors that specialize in various forms of marketing, such as branding, search engine placement, social media, direct email, etc.
Adopt Technologies that increase Efficiency
For years, institutions have partnered with virtual libraries, which provide their students with immediate access to e-books and various electronic databases. This saves the institutions thousands of dollars in individual subscription fees and book purchases. Institutions have also turned to IT vendors for virtual network solutions, web design/development and electronic data storage.
Commoditization of higher education has led many institutions to reassess their practices and systems. Many have found, in order to remain competitive, they must remain affordable. To do so, they must adopt cost-saving measures. Some of those measures require collaboration with external partners and providers. If not, institutions risk losing their share of the higher education market.
Author Perspective: Administrator