Published on 2013/08/23

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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Readers Comments

WA Anderson 2013/08/23 at 8:43 am

We are in a dire state in higher education. Our “special sauce” can’t co-exist with the current business model that’s been forced on us: to cut costs and make a profit. We’ve been forced to make decisions to increase the costs of education and place undue emphasis on job readiness while neglecting other measures of learning success. People no longer have the luxury to pursue education for education’s sake, or engage in extracurricular experiences that develop their being or take the time to engage with, and question, course material — all of the elements of the “special sauce.” All of these valuable experiences are, unfortunately, unquantifiable, so they’re seen as supplementary rather than necessary, while the “core” of education is now viewed as job training. A sad state indeed.

Vera Matthews 2013/08/23 at 12:19 pm

I think many institutions have never fully considered what, on an individual basis, their “special sauce” is; rather, we have seen it as something shared across the higher education industry as a whole. But in this day and age of cost cutting and outsourcing, it’s important for each institution to identify what makes it special, what it can’t afford to lose, so it can find a way to protect it.

    Tyrese Banner 2013/08/26 at 4:45 pm

    Speaking from a non-decision-making position within an institution, I am very interested to learn what factors are taken into account when an institution identifies its particular niche.

    Any insights here would be greatly appreciated.

Ryan Loche 2013/08/26 at 9:58 am

I quite like the idea of having an engaged dialogue about where we see higher education headed. However, this needs to be a conversation that includes those outside of our industry. We can sit here and pontificate all we want, but if we can’t sell our vision to our stakeholders (students, employers, governments, etc.) it won’t do any good. They will keep driving change we don’t want and eroding what we value unless we can sell them on our “special sauce.”

Rick Shearer 2013/08/26 at 11:42 am

Hi Ryan. Good point on needing to also engage those outside of the institution, in order to articulate what we want Higher Education to be/represent in this country.

However, I’m wondering if this also needs to be a bit of a philosophical debate first to ponder our new world before we can even engage with employers or other educational product companies?


    Ryan Loche 2013/08/26 at 2:55 pm

    I’m not sure the philosophical debate, for the entire industry, is that important. To be honest, I wonder if it could wind up confusing the issue.

    Every institution has very particular elements that it considers to be important — some institutions would never consider contracting instruction, others would never consider contracting course design, others still would never consider contracting student management.

    I think we can all agree there are some services that should absolutely be outsourced, though: food services, plant services, housing, these things.

    But in terms of the central services, each institution considers its core to be something different, and having a philosophical discussion to determine what’s “core” will confuse that issue for institutions. I think an industry-wide discussion on the matter is simply a way for larger institutions to impress upon smaller institutions what’s important, thus gaining them competetive advantages in being able to perform those core services better than their smaller competitors.

    Ryan Loche 2013/08/26 at 2:56 pm

    In essence, I think the most important conversation each institution should have on this topic is with its key stakeholders, not its competitors.

      Lisa C 2013/08/26 at 3:27 pm

      I disagree entirely, Ryan.

      While we are in a competitive marketplace, we also work together to form a collaborative community. It’s important for us to share best practices as well as ideas about what the future of our industry holds.

      Without this collaboration, we would be as sedentary as our colleagues elsewhere in the institution.

Ed Bowen 2013/08/27 at 12:53 pm

Good institutions define the unique outcomes of their graduates in meaningful ways.

    Tyrese Banner 2013/08/27 at 3:02 pm

    I agree completely that institutions need to define whether their grads will have competencies or theoretical know-how.

    But this article is more focused on the ways colleges have to internally organize themselves in order to make sure they can adequately get their students to those outcomes. I’m still really interested to find out what kinds of factors are taken into account when institutions choose what to prioritize when it comes to choosing services to keep in house.

    What do you think?

Reed Scull 2013/08/27 at 3:12 pm

My congratulations to my colleague Rick Shearer for a thought-provoking piece. I do think that the cost issues drive much of our discussions, and if it drives each of us to think deeply and articulate more thoroughly what higher education is about, I am glad that the cost issue is being discussed.

I do fear that the discussions of cost try to settle the argument prematurely that government absolutely must reduce its commitments to supporting higher education. Universities have raised tuition in response, as student loans have more frequently been used as a government tool to allow access to higher education. Several policy decisions are wrapped up in this that should be discussed much more deeply, for there are choices that government seems to be making with little challenge or opposing points of view.

PS. I am currently reading Rick’s chapter, “Theory to Practice in Instructional Design” in the new 3rd Edition of the Handbook of Distance Education. The chapter provides an excellent conceptual background to teaching-learning issues in the DE field, and I heartily recommend it to distance educators!

Rick Shearer 2013/09/06 at 9:16 am

Hello everyone. Thank you for your comments and Reed thank you for the plug on the DE Handbook.

I ran across this article this morning and was very impressed with the insights of the faculty and thought it is a great piece to continue the discussion.


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