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Isomorphism, Niche, and Goldilocks: Experimental Colleges and the Lessons They Offer for Post-COVID Higher Education

Although experimental colleges didn’t necessarily achieve their desired success, higher education can glean many lessons from their innovations to improve alignment between student and employer demands. 

Not since the civil rights movement of the 1960s has American postsecondary education been thrust into such disruption as it has with COVID-19. The fundamentals of how, what, who, where, and when we teach and learn have been brought under stark examination. Though equal parts exhilarating and frightening, we have been here before. While not the result of a global pandemic, the experimental colleges of the mid-20th century did exactly what many institutional leaders are doing today: responding to cultural and economic shifts by examining the very essence of what college education is and should be. While the fall of experimental colleges was as swift as their advent, their mark on American higher education should not be dismissed, and the lessons they offer us are worth considering.  

Experimental colleges of the 1950s were responding to a booming economy, robust demographics, and an ever-increasing middle-class. While many system leaders and states focused on expanding capacity, others used the moment to define the soul of American higher education in the face of such expansion. Some experimental colleges were established within existing university systems (e.g., University of Wisconsin and Michigan State University) while others were entirely new enterprises, such as Hampshire College. The general features of an experimental college, as noted by Higginson (2019), were interdisciplinary courses, independent study, student independence, and a curriculum that students believed helped them address pressing cultural problems. Students were particularly attracted to the personalized nature and freedom of the experimental college. 

However, experimental colleges would become a victim of their own success, as by the mid-1960s students and college leaders, while in agreement about the need for social and cultural reform, would diverge in their attitudes regarding the pace at and manner in which such changes should take shape. In short order, experimental colleges developed reputations as playgrounds for the more alternative or avant-garde student. This coincided with a career orientation shift for many students and declining financial support from organizations like the Ford Foundation. As a result, trust quickly eroded, enthusiasm and enrollments declined, and ultimately, finances faltered. As Higginson shares, “By 1980, the surviving institutions were reduced to an alternative niche, a far cry from the formidable movement they had once been” (p. 225). 

In contrast, many postsecondary institutions today, even before COVID, are responding to declining enrollments, increased competition from for-profit and alternative credentialing entities, declining state support, and a growing skepticism on the part of students and their families regarding the return on investment. So, while this cultural moment is one of contraction rather than excess, the need for education leaders to respond in a similarly bold fashion is equally or even more necessary. With this in mind, I would like to suggest several lessons I believe the experimental colleges offer us in this moment.  

1. Not settling for isomorphism 

As DiMaggio and Powell (1983) state: uncertainty breeds homogeneity. In their work on institutional isomorphism and collective rationality, they examined how organizational actors making rational decisions construct an environment that constrains their ability to change. While higher education as a field satisfies several conditions for isomorphism, DiMaggio and Powell’s Hypothesis B-1 is most illustrative: “The greater the extent to which an organizational field is dependent upon a single (or several similar) source of support for vital resources, the higher the level of isomorphism” (p.155). They expound, sharing that, “This hypothesis is congruent with the ecologists’ argument that the number of organizational forms is determined by the distribution of resources in the environment” (p.155). In the case of experimental colleges, rather than follow collective suit and myopically focus on capacity and physical plant expansions to satisfy the supply resource (i.e., enrollments), experimental college leaders used the upheaval to purposefully differentiate themselves to reimagine curriculum, organization, and even governance. The lesson for today’s leaders is that simply weathering COVID-19 will not be enough, as to compete and survive in a post-COVID landscape will require profound differentiation rooted in a product and service that employers and students and their families believe in.   

2. Differentiation leads to niche 

While isomorphism represents one end of a competitive market environment continuum, niche represents the other. Both can be problematic. The eventual reputation of experimental colleges as an alternative niche set them apart too much from the more reliable product of traditional higher education at that time. Whether intentional or not, experimental colleges employed what is called horizontal differentiation (Chamberlain, 1933) to distinguish themselves in the crowded marketplace of higher education. Simply, horizontal differentiation is when organizations appeal to consumers’ subjective preferences when the organization and their competitors share similar pricing and features. However, there is always the risk that creating a niche product you shrink your market appeal to the point of unsustainability. This is a particular challenge for higher education, wherein the economies of scale are so critical to financial health. The cautionary tale is that while niche organizations enjoy clear focus and loyal customers, they are often the least equipped to shift or grow their market.        

3. Aiming for the Goldilocks Zone

In astronomy, the Goldilocks Zone refers to the habitable area around a star in which the temperature is just right, neither too hot or cold, so that liquid water can exist. The search for this zone is an essential criterion scientists employ in their quest to find possible life on other planets. Though it might seem the most obvious of observations, institutional leaders today must search for their own Goldilocks Zone, chiefly as it concerns market niche and sustainable enrollments. As outlined above, change too little and your institution becomes lost in a sea of like competitors, change too much and you risk too narrow appeal. 

The alignment requirement

So, how do leaders balance these efforts? Unlike experimental colleges, who with their booming enrollments and financial support could afford a “build it and they will come” approach, today’s leaders do not have this luxury of capital or patience. Thus, institutions today must respond most directly to the employer and student demands, primarily that colleges and universities are the topmost engines for procuring a meaningful career. As I have written elsewhere, this does not mean that we abandon general education or the liberal arts but simply that we must be willing to innovate to create a clear, aligned integration understood by students, families, and employers alike, one that compliments the liberal arts. Thus, I am encouraging that we take big swings but with clear audience needs in mind. 

As an example, I suggest higher education communicate with industry partners regularly, particularly at the local and regional levels. Aligning employer skill, training, and competency demands with the programs offered will be key in assuring that students are both work-ready and have a clear, viable path to employment. Such groups could meet regularly to identify, among other needs, workforce development and to create clear internship pathways for employers to easily access student talent.    

Additionally, I suggest that institutions rethink the traditional major/minor structure in favor of a more mission-based learning pathway. In a 2017 a Gallup poll of college attendees, Education Consumer Pulse, found that 40% of bachelor’s degree respondents were dissatisfied with their major selection and would change it given the chance. In that same survey, only 26% of graduates strongly agreed their education was relevant to both professional and day-to-day life. So, in contrast to the traditional major/minor pathway that seems wildly dissatisfying to students, mission-based learning, instead, has students start with a problem or challenge they want to address and build their academic pathway (e.g., courses, internships, and service) around it. Mission-based education compels students to approach their mission with an interdisciplinary lens and requires several meaningful applied experiences. For example, a student who wants to address the challenges of rural healthcare delivery as their declared mission might take courses in anthropology, sociology, public health, and native american studies and spend a summer internship with an organization like Indian Health Service or the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy. 


Industry partner working groups and mission-based education are just two ideas that directly address the alignment requirement that I believe innovation must take today. Using experimental colleges for both inspiration and caution, these examples reflect a need for university leaders to innovate in bold and differentiating ways, but in a manner that meets clearly articulated demands. Innovating with alignment highlights the best of experimental colleges: innovating in the face of upheaval and creating a unique educational product while mitigating risk, avoiding niche and market unsustainability.     


Chamberlain, E.H. (1933). The Theory of Monopolistic Competition: A Re-orientation of the Theory of Value, Harvard University Press. 

Higginson, R. (2019). When Experimental Was Mainstream: The Rise and Fall of Experimental Colleges, 1957–1979. History of Education Quarterly, 59(2), 195-226. doi:10.1017/heq.2019.4

P. J. DiMaggio & W. Powell, “The iron cage revisited” institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields”, American Sociological Review, 48 (1983), 147-60.

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