Generic Education? Headed for Bankruptcy.
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By Gabriel Martinez, July 31, 2011 in Uncategorized

High-school students spend most of their waking hours trying to fit in, to blend, to be one of the crowd.  And yet this is the end of the season in which students try to "differentiate" themselves - the college application season.

Interestingly, universities and colleges also have the same inner conflict.  They bend over backwards to fit in, to blend, to match what everyone else is doing.  And then they turn around and say to potential students,  "we're exceptional, look at us ... but don't freak out, we're like every other school ... except that we're special ... but in a very normal sort of way."   We're bold yet bland.

It turns out that "doing what everyone else is doing" is bad business. (It's also bad for your health, it turns out).  Not long ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article that concluded: "you've got to differentiate yourself. [If everyone follows] the solution everyone has come up with, and at some point the market's going to get saturated "

From a business standpoint, a university cannot survive if its strategy is to imitate what everyone else is doing (check out this classic article on business strategy by Michael Porter).  Big, medium, and small, colleges across the country offer an increasingly shapeless, generic education.  The same classes, the same bland content, the same weak requirements, the same emphasis on entertainment.  Why go someplace and spend $30K-$40K when you can get exactly the same product from home, online, at a fraction of the cost?

This is good news for schools that are already very differentiated.  I’m thinking particularly of schools with a strong commitment to liberal education and where faith is lived intensely.  Does your school have a product that other colleges cannot imitate (without tremendous cost)?  Do you have a high-quality package that cannot be copied by an online program?  Then you have a competitive advantage precisely because you are targeting an under-served market and not an over-crowded one.

That’s for the supply side.  On the demand side: over the next 10 years or so, there will be fewer US residents who are of college age.  Not only the fraction of college-age people in the United States will fall: the US will actually lose over a million 18-22 year-olds by 2020.  The situation is particularly bad in the Midwest and the Northeast.

The picture is brighter in the West and in the South, and even more so in Florida (you can find the data here).  The share of the population that is college-age is relatively low in those regions (which explains why, historically, there have been fewer college graduates per capita in those states than elsewhere).  But unlike the country as a whole, they are expected to gain 18-22 year olds over 2010-2020.  Between 2020 and 2030, the college-age population in Florida is projected to grow by nearly 30%.

The market for generic education is not only over-crowded (and increasingly so), but shrinking.  The market for the specialized product that many schools (including mine) offer, in the location in which we offer it, is under-served and expanding.

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17 Comments
Anonymous on Jul 31, 2011 at 10:49 am

But with thousands of institutions of higher education, how they all be different? Also, I wonder about competitive advantages in higher ed. Competitive advantages can be crucial in the corporate world. But it seems that models of higher ed can rather easily be copied. If a particular school offers a package not offered by other schools, it is often because other schools don't want to offer it, not because they can't. There are certainly exceptions to this--star professors can't simply be hired by everyone, and expensive lab equipment is, well, expensive, and not easily adopted by other schools.

I would add that I have noticed that quite a few professors and administrators are perhaps a bit too eager to copy what other schools are doing. I wonder how many damaging fads have been adopted because of a desire to follow trends. And why this eagerness to follow trends?

Travis Cook, Ph.D. on Aug 1, 2011 at 6:07 am

Dear Gabriel, I'm grateful for having this article called to my attention, and for your intelligent application of it as well. I have been making very similar arguments at my own college (based mostly on common-sense). Best regards, Travis Cook

Lee Trepanier on Aug 1, 2011 at 6:16 am

I think this idea can be applied to private schools: I am not sure whether it can be adopted by public institutions, which often have mandates from the state legislatures. For example, our institution is designated as regional comprehensive, so our general education must accordingly reflect the mission given to us by the state. Whether our political leaders are open to the idea of differentiation among public institutions is another question.

Gabriel Martinez on Aug 2, 2011 at 12:28 pm

Lee, a question for you about public schools. I had heard that (at least in some cases) legislatures designate school X as the state's "regional comprehensive" and school Y as the one with "professional focus" and Z as "engineering and math," etc.

I would guess that legislatures wouldn't be interested in funding a series of schools that are carbon copies of each other. So it's actually both political and economic suicide for a state school in one state to try to be, look, and feel just like another state school in the same state.

Lee Trepanier on Aug 3, 2011 at 7:14 am

You are correct that state legislatures do designate some schools to specialize in certain topics, e.g., school A will focus on the natural sciences, school B will focus on teacher's education, etc. However, there is the problem of geography, which leads some to think that regional comprehensive institutions should be in every region and thereby duplicate and compete with one another. For example, SVSU is the regional comprehensive school in eastern Michigan, while Grand Valley State is in the western part of the state, and so on. The result is that you do have carbon copies of each other but separated by region. Perhaps this made sense when mobility was less of an issue than today; but it doesn't seem to make much sense now, as students are willing to travel across the country (or out of the country) for higher education.

Gabriel Martinez on Aug 1, 2011 at 6:18 am

I don't have a simple answer to your question. One conclusion from this kind of "competitive analysis" is that there are too many institutions of higher education. Perhaps, and I say this very tentatively, what we'll see is an explosion of U of Phoenix-like institutions, geared to students who can't afford and can't appreciate residential, liberal education.

On the other hand, many residential, four-year schools do not offer any value that cannot be copied by a computer with a good broad-band connection and a hopping local bar scene (or at least a hang-out). I would suspect that such schools are doomed.

The residential schools that will survive, in this framework, are schools for which being residential is a key element of their identity (their "value-proposition"). They actually have a clear identity, a reason for existing. These are schools for which, somehow, academics and student life are a coherent and dynamic unity -- in less jargon, schools where the classroom, the dorm room, and the field support each other rather than play against each other -- because they know what they are about.

An implication is that these schools believe in education. There's something that they want to contemplate in research and pass on in teaching.

Why do faculty and administrators like to copy other programs? Because we don't know what education is. And we don't want to take the time to think about it and figure it out. (Cue ad for the American Liberal Arts blog at the ISI's American Studies Center.)

Travis Cook, Ph.D. on Aug 1, 2011 at 6:49 am

Lee, Aren't state schools less endangered in this sense? In other words, there is an obvious way in which they don't have to compete? I know legislatures think all professors are idiots (as opposed to what we know to be the case --- 999 out of a thousand); but still, state schools may become more "vocational" but they won't disappear.

Travis Cook, Ph.D. on Aug 1, 2011 at 6:49 am

Do parents believe in liberal education?

Lee Trepanier on Aug 2, 2011 at 11:57 am

Travis raises two good questions. I'm not sure whether parents believe in liberal education. It would be good to have a study to find out what parents think the purpose of higher education is and whether liberal education should be a part of it.

As to whether state schools don't have to compete compared to private schools, this is true for the state's flagship schools, e.g., the Madison-Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State. The reality is that the flagship schools usually receive about 70-80% of the state funds, while the rest of the regional state schools have to compete with each other over the remaining amount. The recent push by these flagship schools to become independent from the state is revealing in that they want to free themselves of the constraints (as they see it) from the state. If they are successful, the results I expect will be a huge reduction in state funding for higher education with the remaining schools competing for the crumbs.

Gabriel Martinez on Aug 2, 2011 at 12:23 pm

Yes, very good questions. You often hear that when Johnny says that he wants to study politics or art history, his parents reply, "but what can you do with that?" It seems that the parents are even less interested in liberal education than the students.

(Put it in a different, even more insulting, way. Johnny is your typical thoughtless, irresponsible 19 year old. Of course he would pick a course of study that is completely unrelated to his future life. Jeannie, on the other hand, is a head-on-her-shoulders, responsible, mature young adult, and because she thinks about her future she picks a major that she can clearly connect with a job.)

Gabriel Martinez on Aug 2, 2011 at 12:23 pm

To retake a business-like manner of arguing. The typical college pitch goes like this: Page One: Come be one of us. Page Two: what can you do with this major?

Page One, the campus pitch, says: "Think about us. Imagine yourself living here. Imagine what it would be like to be one of us, to hang out here."

Page Two, the career pitch, says: "Forget about us. Imagine yourself leaving here. Imagine what it would be like to get away from us, to get out of here."

The immediate focus on the career makes sense for a U of Phoenix-like school, one that doesn't have a vibrant campus culture (or a campus).

But residential colleges shoot themselves in the foot, from a marketing point of view, by giving mixed messages -- because, in the end, they don't believe in what they are doing.

Glenn on Aug 2, 2011 at 2:00 pm

I'm late to the party and you all have started to address this, but part of any good marketing program is the need to convince your market that they WANT the aspect that you are "pitching."

There are comparable challenges to what we're talking about here. Food is food, a t-shirt is a t-shirt, an SUV is an SUV...or is it? Folks pitching these products have to find aspects of a product that differentiate them. But even in these case, most of these particulars can be communicated to the average person - or at least the merits can be communicated such that the average people THINK that they understand them.

Can the same be said of the liberal arts education that you are talking about? We are now at least two (maybe three) generations away from the time when folks got a solid liberal arts education in college. Even many of us professors didn't really get the undergraduate education that we really needed. So we're asking people (parents, donors, students) to recognize the merits of something that is as familiar to them as the sight of a wolverine or a Dodo bird. We can't just "snob up" the appeal of a liberal arts education. It's hard work, and even the previously snobby schools have given in to trade school curricula.

Futhermore, there are thousands (millions?) of folks in the market for an education who were not in the market when the liberal arts education was king. They have now entered the market over the last seventy years expecting to get preparation for work. To now suggest something that is inherently leisurely and aristocratic grates against the utilitarian and democratic sensibility of the age.

Finally (and perhaps worst of all), how many folks in the administration, marketing, and admissions of higher education understand the kind of liberal arts education that we're suggesting? If they don't recognize it and believe in it, they're not about to pitch it.

Sorry to be a bummer, but I think that these are substantial difficulties. I love what you're calling for, however.

John on Aug 3, 2011 at 7:02 am

Certainly there is a place for universities that sell themselves as preparing students for work. To assume otherwise seems to lead towards the idea that everyone should go get a liberal arts education. The fact is that when a liberal arts education was a serious one only about 10% of the population went to college. Today 70% of people are going to college. My hunch is that this is probably 50% too many but will remain the case for a long time to come. As such a liberal arts education will be a niche market and ought to be a niche market.

How many people are suited to a liberal arts education? How many parents can be persuaded that a liberal arts education is best? My suspicions are that the numbers are very, very low.

Aside from all that, I would say that the majority of professors don't know what a liberal arts education is, never received one, could give a fig about one, and are completely unprepared to deliver one.

Lee Trepanier on Aug 3, 2011 at 7:18 am

And to just to add to the doom and gloom, how many of incoming freshman are actually prepare for liberal arts learning, especially given the state of our K-12 system.

John on Aug 3, 2011 at 9:00 am

Lee, My remarks were not in the spirit of doom and gloom. I don't think it has ever been the case, or ever will be the case, that something other than a small portion of people will be suited for or benefited by a liberal arts education. I try not to be gloomy about what has to be. That it not to say that we could not be doing a much better job of K-12 and what Gabriel calls "generic education."

If we want to have a society where the majority of people attend college then we are looking at the majority of people receiving a generic education. The fact that we have created a technocratic society means we need a largely technocratic education to sustain it. The desire to have a society of liberal arts graduates strikes me as a perfectly modern utopian dream. Once more than a small minority of people begin going to college we have to deliver a "generic education."

Lee Trepanier on Aug 4, 2011 at 6:10 am

John: Sorry for the misunderstanding - it is probably just me projecting. I agree with you that only a small percentage of society will be suitable for liberal arts learning.

Gabriel Martinez on Aug 3, 2011 at 10:48 am

Just to be clear: by "generic" I simply mean "undifferentiated."

The point is that residential colleges whose strength is liberal education should not attempt to become, simultaneously, online colleges emphasizing vo-tech. Likewise, it would be self-destructive for a vo-tech school to cover itself in the paraphernalia of ivy and tweed.

Schools across the land have tried to be all things to all men and women. In doing so, they have endangered their long-term viability.

about the author

Gabriel Martinez
Gabriel Martinez

I am Associate Professor of Economics and Chairman of the Department of Economics at Ave Maria University. I have been in the Economics Department since its beginning and have taught over fifteen different courses at Ave Maria University, particularly in the areas of macroeconomics, international economics, development economics, Catholic social teaching, economic history, and social philosophy. My two favorite courses to teach are Intermediate Macroeconomics and Markets, State, and Institutions.

My work is in the general area of international finance and open-economy macroeconomics, with a focus on developing countries. My dissertation focused on the 1999 economic collapse in Ecuador,using a combination of historical, theoretical, and empirical analyses. My paper on the role of deregulation, moral hazard, and overconfidence in the Ecuadorian financial crisis was published by the Cambridge Journal of Economics. Financial crises are a perennial topic, with causes that are complex and deep, inextricably intermingled with politics and ethics. My Ph.D. is from the University of Notre Dame.