How will colleges innovate?

With fewer families able to pay for an expensive college education, some institutions may start to rethink the way they conduct business

By , Guest blogger

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    In this April 9, 2009 file photo, student guide Coreyn Kosik, center, points out campus sites to prospective students and their parents during a tour of Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa. Will colleges be forced to come up with a new business model so that they're more affordable?
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That’s the question that Jeffrey Selingo poses over the The Chronicle of Higher Education (ht: Jack B.):

[I]f current economic trends continue, much of traditional academe is going to be forced to change. Families can no longer use their house as an ATM. States are making tough choices about the size of government, and public colleges are often left at the end of the line. And now the federal government is likely to cut back on many of its fiscal promises to deal with an out-of-control deficit.

The bottom line is that we’re likely to face a future where students and their families pay a lot more of the cost of a college education out of pocket. Without grants and loans as a safety net, students are probably going to make different choices than they do now (read: less expensive choices). We’re likely headed toward a future where smaller, struggling colleges need to move to new models of doing business, while elite, wealthy colleges continue to support the current model.

Selingo then summarizes several ideas that were bandied about in a meeting of academic “disruptors” and disruptive innovation guru Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School. They include:

  • Disaggregated universities, in which colleges would purchase courses from other colleges (or, I suppose, sources like Khan Academy) rather than produce them themselves, and
  • Modular universities, in which colleges would provide much more focused degree offerings.

Also on the agenda: rethinking the often-anachronistic academic year and the scholastic currency known as the credit hour.

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To be sure, none of these ideas are particularly earth-shattering. But that may well be the larger point. America’s higher education “industry” might well reap substantial benefits from adopting organizational ideas that are already old hat elsewhere in the economy.

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