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What Higher Ed Can Learn from the Death of Independent Bookstores

What Higher Ed Can Learn from the Death of Independent Bookstores
Like independent bookstores of the 1990s, leaders of small higher ed institutions are faced with the decision to embrace strategic change or lose out to the transforming marketplace.
Clay Christensen predicted that the “bottom 25 percent of every tier” of American colleges will disappear or merge in the next 10 or so years.

That could be up to 1,000 colleges.

If he’s right, it’s time for higher education leaders to wake up. The signs are there: surveys show more and more schools missing their enrollment targets each year, with one survey suggesting that 40 percent of four-year colleges missed their mark in 2013.

If we have learned anything about the pace of change in the last 20 years, we know that whole industries can be disintermediated quickly. The music business: eviscerated virtually overnight. The bookstore business: big box chains rolled over the independent bookstores in the ’90s and Amazon is in the process of rolling over the big box chains today.

But what can higher education leaders learn from the demise of independent bookstores in the ’90s?

Setting the Scene: The Book Sales Industry in the 1990s

Let’s go back 20-plus years in Mr. Peabody’s WABAC Machine. There were hundreds of independently-owned bookstores across the United States. Then, suddenly, Barnes & Noble (B&N) and Borders began proliferating their big-box, 20,000-square-foot stores with more than 100,000 product units at a typical store. There was no way independent shops could compete with these full-service behemoths in their neighborhoods.

Or was there?

I was a sales and marketing vice-president at a major publisher at the time, and I remember the lamentations independent bookstore owners would share about their bleak future trying to compete with these megastores.

I often steered the conversation to share a strategy I believed could save some of them. I suggested to many that they could survive if they became specialty bookstores. These stores could not only survive, but also thrive, if they committed to becoming the best bookstore in their city at a specific genre (the best mystery, best western, best fishing — the best whatever bookstore). If you became the best boutique bookstore, your selection would be deeper and richer than B&N’s or Borders’, and you would succeed.

Almost all the owners looked at me as if I had six heads, and I soon kept my opinions to myself. But here we are today, and virtually the only independent bookstores left in the United States — with rare exceptions — are boutique bookstores. (I leave aside in this discussion the effect of Amazon in further eliminating physical bookstores, including Borders and now the slow demise of B&N.)

Making the Link: Book Sales and Higher Ed

At this point you may be asking yourself, “What does that have to do with higher education?”

The bottom-tier schools are most in peril, as Christiansen notes, as they experience the greatest enrollment target misses. For the most part, these schools are generally small, private and “regionally-known” colleges.

Why is that?

Because these schools can no longer compete for students as a full-service, full-curriculum institution. They have a poor brand, their tuition has finally exceeded the perceived value to students and their parents, and they’re graduating students into a sustained no-growth economy as their graduates struggle to find jobs.

Add in the fact that most schools’ full-service mission — what Christiansen calls “chasing the Harvard model” in “The Innovative University” — is unsustainable and much too expensive, and you have a recipe for disaster.

But, just like bookstore owners in the ’90s, higher ed leaders have an option: consciously plot a new strategy and become a boutique or specialty school.

Here are just some of the strategic questions leaders should be asking:

  • Why do we have so few educational models for postsecondary education?

  • What “mid-skill” jobs can we educate for?

  • How can we use our continuing education arm to robustly offer certificates, nanodegrees and other targeted instruction for hot jobs, rather than ceding this market to training companies?

  • How can my school partner with the major businesses in my area to become their “training company” of choice for all their needs?

  • What specialized program(s) might our school focus on exclusively, become great at and allow us to right-size around?

  • How can we become a great online provider that lowers the cost of instruction, raises the number instructed and lowers the cost to the student?

  • Is there a place for competency-based instruction on my campus?

These are all choices to live rather than die trying to compete on the full-service model. The bookstores could have done it (and some did). Why not us?

To read the next installment in Moore’s series, please click here.

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