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Run Your Own Race: The Four-Minute Mile and Higher Education

In order to successfully compete in the adult higher education market, institutions must focus on their own strengths and ensure they perform well, rather than trying to imitate the strategies of competitors.

On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes, shattering records and setting a new standard in distance running.

No other runner had run a mile in under four minutes. Some doctors argued that the human body would collapse if pushed to such limits. Bannister, then in medical school, felt otherwise. He did not believe that just because no one had achieved the goal, it could not be achieved. In other words, he no longer raced against others. He raced against himself.

The analogy is important to those of us in the business of education. Too often, we look to what other schools or training providers are doing. Rather than focusing on our strengths to meet our customers’ needs, we keep looking over our shoulders for competitors.

For the purpose of this article, we will identify “customers” as the companies or businesses that hire local workers. The perceived “competitors” are, to a certain extent, other higher education institutions. Mostly, though, these “competitors” are private training providers.

If a private training provider does not meet customer needs, it closes. Their focus should not be what the competition is doing, but how they are servicing their customers. Programs that lend themselves to competition normally have a high enough demand that a training provider could fill to capacity or grow the program without impacting other training providers. For example, an excellent industrial maintenance certification program that stays current with technology and business needs will always be in demand. This would indicate that success for a private training provider has less to do with either the quality or capacity of a local state-funded higher education institution, and more to do with their ability to develop and market their own programs.

In contrast, colleges have the advantage of prestige and the ability to offer a variety of degrees. I work with many companies who value a college degree for their employees. In fact, many companies will offer their employees tuition aid for college-credit classes only. Earning a college credit is a sign of overall achievement and growth, and of achieving a challenging goal.

One major strength of the community college is the relationship between corporate training and the academic departments. The corporate training department gives the community college greater flexibility in responding to the customer’s immediate needs. If the academic departments adjust their curricula and programs to address the issues identified by the corporate training department, the college can be assured that all graduates have the skill sets required by local employers.

I could talk further about the levels of competition, particularly in the world of manufacturing training. Instead, I will point to a report published by the Boston Consulting Group in 2011, titled “Made in America Again.”

The writers of the report suggested that nearly five million new manufacturing jobs will become open in America by 2020.

Five million is an astonishing number, intimidating to both private training providers and institutions alike. The reality is that our combined resources might not be adequate to meet the upcoming need.

Instead, I would suggest that different types of companies and workers need different programs, and both private training providers and colleges should focus on their strengths.

Rather than consider private training providers to be competitors, a higher education institution should work to its strengths and focus on the needs of the ultimate customer: the companies who hire our graduates. Highly qualified workers will mean highly successful companies. Highly successful companies will grow our communities, which in turn will attract new companies into our respective regions.

An interesting historical note: Only two months after Bannister ran his historic mile, both he and Australian runner John Landy ran a mile in under four minutes at the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games hosted in Vancouver, B.C.

Landy lost the race. Why? He looked over his shoulder to see his competitors, broke his stride, and Bannister charged straight past him.

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