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Size and Prestige Won’t Get You Too Far: The Key to Institutional Survival

Size and Prestige Won’t Get You Too Far: The Key to Institutional Survival
Institutions will not survive the higher education revolution on the backs of their prestige or size. The defining factor for successful institutions in the coming years will be their ability to adapt to change in the industry.

It is clear that the orthodox model of American higher education—public, private and proprietary—is in for rough sledding over the next few years, as both the economic climate and core learning models change dramatically. We are witnessing the unbundling of the traditional higher education model, and it is getting re-bundled in a seemingly unending array of options and opportunities for learners, many of them unimaginable only a few years ago.

It seems to me that one inevitable consequence of this disruption will be the decline of traditional institutions as new institutional forms emerge. While it is easier to predict which institutions will absolutely stay open—those with prestigious reputations and large endowments seem safe for the time being—picking the losers is a far more difficult proposition for two reasons.

First, there will be more and more people consuming post-secondary services in all its forms. So, while the delivery of the services may change, people who are already “in the business” and who know about education and learning support have a running start at anticipating how learning will be provided and paid for in the future.

Second, following Darwin’s logic, the evolutionary battle is not won by the strong, but by those who can adapt to changes in their environment. I believe the same will be true for institutions. Some are quick to write off smaller public and private colleges and universities because they appear to be economically vulnerable. On the other hand, institutions that can adapt quickly to the potential in emerging trends will have an advantage over those who cannot or will not adapt; and let’s not forget, larger institutions are tougher to steer towards change than smaller ones.

What distinguishes leaders like Michael Crow at Arizona State University and Paul LeBlanc at Southern New Hampshire University is not the size of, or the governance model at, their institutions. It is the will, the instinct, the vision, and the patient tenacity they have exhibited since they were called to the positions they currently hold. Although the model each is promoting is distinctively different from the other, as are the respective institutions, both are working effectively. This suggests to me that the model is only part of the solution. Other parts are the leadership and the ability to understand when a model is “right” for an institutional change agenda.

Let me give an example. If open resource education continues to boom, it is reasonable to assume that curricular content will not continue to be the differentiating feature at many institutions going forward. On the other hand, in a world where the delivery of content can be “flipped”, the actual time spent “at school” can be re-designed and made more valuable than a series of lectures, classes and tests. In fact, a small campus that used a low residency model—bringing in learners once a month or four times a year coupled with OER curricula in a guided independent study format—would be close to replicating 19th century educator Mark Hopkins’ famous conversation with a learner on a log, using the World Wide Web and social networking.

I also believe that we will see the rise of learning assessment as a core feature of the teaching-learning process. Assessment is the process of distilling learning from broad experience. So, a college that chooses to become extremely good at the assessment of learners and learning—including them in the deeply educational process of thinking about what they have learned—could become the safe haven that learners, stymied by the chaos of resources without structure, come to for support or guidance.

My point is simple. We are used to ranking colleges by size, prestige, endowment, and SAT scores. Small, newer, and/or rural used to mean lesser—unless you were like Middlebury College or Ohio Wesleyan University. Being a larger and older institution that enrolled high-talent entering students was better. But the rules are different now, and the shape of the playing field has changed.

The winners will be the institutions and the leaders who adapt constructively, and with vision, to the changing environment.

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