Invest in Your Differentiator
I started writing a post about why universities are trying to be all things to all students. How universities are expending so much energy trying to defend their product rather than being content with their product. But as I got deeper into the post I realized the problem is all about financial aid. Our universities could all be content to fit into the model that they carve out for themselves. But the common denominator that forces them all to be accountable to a common model is the all-powerful dollar provided by financial aid. Darn, I don’t think I have an answer for how to manage financial aid. Wealthy private institutions don’t have to worry but most every other institution does.
My original motivation for the post had to do with how much effort is expended for the purpose of justifying that all students are given an equal opportunity to succeed. Many institutions of higher education are dealing with validation of learning outcomes. So we have remediation, retention, and assessment programs all to prove that we are fulfilling these nebulous requirements for producing a successful graduate. What got me thinking was that it may be OK for students to fail. I am at a significantly STEM based university that has nothing to apologize for. It is not easy to obtain an engineering degree, nor should it be. Yes it is justified for us to expend a fair amount of energy to make sure that we are offering a fair opportunity for an engineering student to succeed but that is our differentiator.
The overwhelming landscape of higher education is strewn with institutions expending enormous amounts of resources trying to validate who they are and why investment in their product is justified. This has caused great confusion for many of these institutions about who they should become. There is great overlap now for obtaining an undergraduate college degree with lively debate about the value of those degrees. But I think it is time for many institutions to retreat and choose a path that they can focus their full attention on. If you can only survive by competing in the commodity game of increasing your enrollment or raising your price, then understand the commodity game. Understand that a degree based on information has become free to the world and it is no longer the differentiator. The price for that degree will only go down. So what is your differentiator?
Now is the time to invest in your differentiator. State institutions should eliminate overlap and quit competing with themselves. States should not be afraid to cap enrollment and allow competition to dictate a student’s options. All students have options even if they do not want to compete. Online learning will only be a financial strategy for the large efficient online programs. All institutions still need to invest in blended learning because it is a requirement for today’s learner. But most of all, invest in your differentiator. That may be the residential experience, student life, research opportunities, athletics, honor’s programs, unique degrees, and even highly effective teachers. But quit trying to compete for that elusive target of academic excellence unless it promotes one of your differentiators.