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Higher Education’s Special Sauce is Dripping

Higher Education’s Special Sauce is Dripping
As higher education transforms with the times, industry leaders seem to have lost sight of the elements that make higher education unique.

Over the past several years, and probably longer for many who have been tracking higher education trends, we have witnessed a barrage of external forces on higher education. Skyrocketing tuition due to the same forces that impacted the rest of the economy, rising presence of non-traditional institutions and learners and the increased involvement of corporate higher education entities (such as Pearson, Blackboard, Inside Track and many others) have fundamentally changed the nature of college and university education.

Internally, we have also suffered from lagging graduation rates, longer time to completion and a changing demographic in terms of educational expectations, and numerous volumes have been written on our underachieving institutions.

All of this has led to a bit of “the sky is falling” syndrome and a sense we must quickly change, with folks jumping on endless new ideas in the hope of a silver bullet. But as one steps back from the media frenzy around higher education, a fundamental question continually arises:

“What is it we want higher education to be/represent in our society and what is it about higher education that has made it special for so many years?”

In other words, what is the “special sauce” that makes a higher education experience unique? In the past, was it the academics, the extracurricular experiences or something else? Each person likely has her or his story, whether as a traditional student (18 to 22-years-old and attending a residential or commuter institution) or as a non-traditional learner. Personally, my extended time as an undergraduate student was for exploration of self and academic areas; it was about growing up, stepping into leadership roles in student organizations and the people. Granted, not everyone can afford that experience anymore, with less than 20 percent of current students matching the criteria of a traditional student and with all of the competing economic demands on our lives.

However, as we sit in this current whirlwind and observe the latest new trends spin around us, and as we watch pieces of the academy spin away to outside vendors or “partners,” how much of the special sauce is disappearing? Moreover, can we still define what the special sauce is, or know it when we see it?

It is often difficult to define the higher education special sauce, as it is viewed through so many lenses (research, teaching, as students or as administrators), and it is likely different for each institution. But, fundamentally, there must be a core set of values that make higher education unique. From the distance education perspective, it is the special attention given to each student by advisors, the faculty and all others who interact with our students. It is students knowing they are communicating with those at the core of their educational experience. Thus, for distance education, it would not seem reasonable to outsource advising, teaching, instructional design or the helpdesk. All are part of a unique system that interacts to provide students with a great learning experience.

However, others may have different views on the core values of higher education. Therefore, as an academic community it is critical to have an open discussion about the experience in this new world we find ourselves in before we wake up and discover all of the special sauce has dripped away and we are just left with training for jobs.

It is my hope this short article will start the dialogue across the higher education space — in this publication, on social media and during the upcoming association gatherings of UPCEA, Sloan-C and others — about the new higher education experience and that special uniqueness we want higher education to be.

We have heard over the last several years about the forces impacting and changing higher education. It is time to move on from lamenting about these forces and instead define higher education in the new world. Further, we cannot let technology drive this discussion. While awash with ideas around disruptive innovation, we must determine whether these notions truly apply to higher education. Also, is higher education actually feeling the impact of technology innovation or are we, like other sectors of the economy, just starting to feel the impact of the housing market spin up and collapse?

In an economic segment that is 70 to 80 percent human capital and where the primary costs are in salaries and benefits, how does one adjust to move tuition backwards or, at best, leave it stagnant, while maintaining that special sauce and uniqueness?

Identifying all of the external factors impacting higher education may have been the easy part of our discussions over the past several years, but coming up with solid solutions is hard, and hopefully we can start an engaged dialogue on the subject.

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Arum, Richard and Roksa, Josipa. Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Bok, Derek. Our underachieving colleges: A candid look at how much students learn and why they should be learning more. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Christensen, Clayton, Horn, Michael and Johnson, Curtis. Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns.New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008.

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