Is the College/University Model Sustainable?

The question of whether our current College/University model is sustainable seems to me what Clayton Christensen and his colleagues are asking in their recent report, “Disrupting College: How disruptive innovation can deliver quality and affordability to postsecondary education.”

The current model uses measures of quality based on a university’s prestige (for example, the quality of research done by the faculty and the degree of selectivity for their incoming freshman). We could also add such things as quality of food services and workout facilities when we think of the higher education “arms race” in recruiting students.

In addition, while our higher education policies have focused on expanding access to higher education by finding ways for students to afford higher education (grants and loans), Christensen suggests this model is broken as well. We need to move away from providing students a way to afford higher education and toward making higher education affordable. In other words, we need to find ways of making higher education affordable by lowering the cost.

To break away from these models, Christensen suggests we need a disruptive innovation: online learning. Online learning is disruptive because it allows us to serve/reach individuals who previously were not served; it can exploit the fact that knowledge has been democratized by the Internet; it provides THE opportunity to “transform curriculum and learning;” and finally, it allows students to customize their learning experiences to meet their individual needs.

The second element of a disruptive innovation is creating new business models to complement the disruptive innovation. Using the old business models in hopes of exploiting the disruptive innovation is simply not sustainable. To fully take advantage of the opportunities offered by a disruptive innovation, institutions must allow and nurture a new business model. In my mind the business model should be driven by the market needs which include cost of the product but also such things as flexibility, convenience and the overall value added to the student’s needs.

A third element that I would suggest is that the disruptive innovation and its business model can best be implemented by an autonomous unit within the larger organization. This autonomous unit is free to concentrate on outcome measures such as student learning and meeting student needs as compared to prestige.

Finally, Christensen and his colleagues suggest that by embracing the disruptive innovation will allow us, higher education, to examine long standing polices, such as seat time’s relation to learning, through a new lens.

In an earlier blog I suggested that “we have seen the leader and it is ourselves,” and my take away from Christensen’s report is “I have seen the disruptive innovation and it is me.” In many ways, I think those of us who lead outreach and engagement units must be a disruptive force in providing leadership on how best to use the disruptive innovation of online learning, and our units should be the autonomous unit that implements the new business model. Our units after all are the leaders in working with new audiences in a market environment and operate at the intersection of providing learning opportunities within a revenue based model.

I personally like the implication of being a disruptive innovation and taking on the challenge of assisting with not only the sustainability by making it more affordable but also being part of the conversation of examining new outcome measures.

Many thanks to my friend, colleague, and golfing partner Dr. Donna Sundre for sharing this article with me. Donna is the director of JMU’s Center for Assessment and Research Studies and she and her crew have been invaluable in helping us develop and measure student outcomes in our programs and will be our partners as a disruptive innovation.

I want to end with what some of you may think is a strange insight that came about in a discussion with my wife Peggy on the way to work this morning. For those of you with grandkids or can remember raising your own kids, you might remember the book “If You Give a Moose a Muffin.” Well, it occurred to me that this book has leadership implications for those of in outreach and engagement….why you might ask?….in a future blog post I will provide more information.

Have a great weekend.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Is the College/University Model Sustainable?

  1. Andy DePalma says:


    Giving a nod to JMU for their contributions, what other institutions do you consider the best models in either pursuing or being fully engaged in the “disruptive model” for CE?

    UPCEA-NAL ’11

    • shaeffjm says:

      Andy, thanks for your comment and question. In terms of who is fully engaged in the disruptive model for CE, my first thought would have been some of the for profits that are offering all their programs on line. However, Burk Smith ( makes an excellent point in that the for profits are not being disruptive they are following the old model of using the technology to deliver courses/programs and not using the technology to lower the cost for students. Right now I think Straighterline provides the best example of using technology to really disrupt the pricing and access issues in higher education.

      Andy, for me as a professional continuing educator, I see my responsibility to act as a disruptive force at my institution, i.e., looking for new, often nontraditional ways of providing greater access and more affordable access.

      Thanks again for the question.

  2. How long do you believe our current model of education is sustainable? We all see the challenges we face and we are not prepared. In my view, we currently teach ” what to think,” an industrial age philosophy up until graduate school, then we teach “when to think.” a professional education. I see the need to teach “how to think” as what is missing to prepare us for the challenges we face. So, how long is our current model sustainable and who on a large scale is teaching “how to think” what I call a leadership education?

    • shaeffjm says:

      Daniel, thanks for your note and for following Shaeffer’s Forays.

      You raise a great question and actually a question that exceeds what I’ve discussed in Forays because I’ve concentrated primarily on the infrastructure as compared to pedagogy. In thinking about your question, there is little doubt in my mind that we are moving closer and closer to teaching to the test at time when we find ourselves in a hyper-accountable environment. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is important, even imperative, to have student outcomes and assessment; my concern is that we sometimes find our outcome measures too restrictive because they can be measured, e.g., standardized tests and the latest is gainful employment.

      To your question, how long is this model sustainable, I really have no idea. There are however some very refreshing voices out there like Scott Noppe-Brandon and Eric Liu (Imagination First, who argue that we need to unlock the imaginiation, and by doing so we will produce more successful students and successful professionals, and successful and (I believe) fulfilled individuals.

      Sorry I can’t give you a better answer but thanks for the question.


  3. Pingback: Off to Cambridge | Shaeffer's Forays

  4. Pingback: The Big Question(s) with Online Leadership | Shaeffer's Forays

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s