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Escaping the Death Spiral By Becoming The Community’s College

The EvoLLLution | Escaping the Death Spiral By Becoming The Community’s College
To escape a death spiral, universities should focus less on courting out-of-state students and focus more on building their reputation locally.

Recent reports on the health of colleges and universities are dire. Some experts suggest that as many as half of all American colleges could be shuttered in the next decade.[1],[2]Colleges and universities are being disrupted by online teaching, coding bootcamps and the like. There are a number of reasons colleges are feeling this pressure: continually increasing tuition; spiraling costs; employer-identified skills gaps among graduates; and an administrative heritage built around academic silos slow to change are just a few. There is a much more pressing, underlying concern implicit in these issues that will threaten the long-term viability of colleges and universities: the erosion of their perceived value to the community. Happily, protecting against this long-term threat will also make colleges much more viable in the near term.

Of all the innovations disrupting colleges and universities, perhaps the most pressing concern should be around growth-oriented universities and online program managers (OPMs) setting up physical locations in the backyard of existing universities (see the recent WeWork-2U partnership and Purdue University’s acquisition of Kaplan). Most universities exist to serve their local population. Indeed, this was very much the model on which universities were founded—to be regionally based and focused on serving the local community.

During the mid-1980s we saw the rise of national universities, and today, amid funding pressures and tuition hikes, most universities are happy to educate students outside of their local community in exchange for increased, out-of-state tuition payments. Sadly, this model offers short-term gain and long-term pain. The university’s reputation in the community continues to erode as non-local students leave after graduation. Add to this the increased competitive pressure from growth-oriented universities and OPMs and the traditional university is at grave risk of losing what makes it most special: its reputation in the local community.

To escape this death spiral, universities must reconnect with the community. Become the “community’s college.” Stop treating your students like short-term customers with four-year or two-year periods of engagement. The quickly evolving knowledge economy demands that everyone become a lifelong learner. The local postsecondary institution should be the hub of this learning across their lifetime.

How might universities move in this direction?

1. Be interdisciplinary

Break down that wall, university president! The siloed colleges of the past must be dismantled. Just as problems aren’t solved in the real world by using knowledge and information from a single college, neither will future university attendees be able to get the tools they need from a single college. Students don’t care in which colleges faculty reside. They care that the program is coherently designed and cogently delivered.

2. Give students what they want

The students care strongly about whether the skills are usable. Be market driven! The more community oriented the university becomes, the more its leaders will come to recognize what knowledge its customers are demanding. Universities today must let the market “pull” the information they need out of them. The days of pushing information into the market are ending.

3. Create spaces that are inviting and customer experience oriented

Too many universities today are run like a traditional grocery store. They are focused on ramming students through the system (i.e., foot traffic) and selling ancillary services like sports packages and access to lazy rivers (i.e., while you are here for your milk, why don’t you grab some cookies). Why compete with amusement parks and golf courses? Instead, universities should be emulating the business models employed by Whole Foods and Starbucks. Leverage those cool old buildings to create spaces that make students want to come, stay and converse. Multiple important outcomes occur when you do this: learning through sense-making and sense-giving; networking; and innovation are just a few. Why yield this market to the rapidly growing incubators popping up all over your town? Universities as incubators and hubs of innovation are the OG.

4. Increase the focus on the flexible, market-driven certificate and CEUs

I am not advocating for an end to college degrees. However, universities must layer in multiple learning options for students who don’t require 120 credit hours or multiple years of investment. Universities cannot be market driven in a market where the knowledge, skills and abilities they teach in their four-year degrees have a half-life of a few years. Instead, focus on microcredentials—nanodegrees, micromasters, stackable credentials and badges—that are linked to continuing education credits.

5. Build your own online resources, but make sure they drive students onto campus

The internet is not going away, so universities need to stop acting like the only way to teach students is through a traditional face-to-face lecture that meets twice a week. Develop online resources that replace the lecture, but—and this is critically important—don’t go all in on online education. Online education is wonderful for knowledge sharing, especially when engaging online resources are deployed, but knowledge sharing is not the same thing as engendering an understanding. Thus, universities need to use online resources to drive students into their inviting learning spaces to have those vibrant discussions which lead to understanding.

6. Think Costco and Amazon when developing innovative payment plans

A funny thing happens when universities look beyond tuition-based degree programs. They discover there are myriad ways to structure student payment plans. This flexibility is paramount when it comes to creating “tranches” of cash flows for the universities. Why not sell learning memberships to the university? Give students access to the space, encourage loitering and idea sharing, offer discounts on workshops and bootcamps to your “platinum” members. Such memberships can offer a much-needed cash flow baseline for the university and drive prospective learners into the university’s ecosystem.

At the Center for Professional Excellence (CPE) at UTSA’s College of Business, we have developed and employed many of these tactics to great success. The CPE acts as a collecting house of disciplines and programs that combine faculty from around the university to meet the demands of the lifelong learners in our community. We are not interested in pushing students through our programs. Rather, we are focused on bringing members of the community into our space to collaborate and share ideas. We seek to be top of mind amongst local business leaders when they are faced with complex business problems and unique opportunities. Our mission is to be the college’s front door to our community.


[1]Hess, Abigail. “Harvard Business School Professor: Half of American Colleges Will be Bankrupt in 10 to 15 Years.”. CNBC. August 30, 2018.

[2]Horn, Michael. “Will Half od All Colleges Rally Close in The Next Decade?” Forbes. December 14, 2018.

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