Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Delegating to the Proprietaries

This is one of those “thinking out loud” posts, as opposed to some sort of fully thought out proposal.  Constructive feedback is very, very welcome.

I read the Chronicle piece on the University of North Texas at Dallas, and had to sigh.  UNT-Dallas is styling itself a disruptive innovation, complete with references to Clayton Christensen and BYU-Idaho. Its breakthroughs include a year-round teaching calendar, a narrowly-focused career-driven curriculum, and recruitment of younger and more upscale students.  To the future!

Um, no.

Those are all variations on conventional practice.  Work speedups -- the twelve-month calendar -- are not conceptual breakthroughs.  Narrow, career-focused curricula have existed for decades.  And it’s hardly groundbreaking to notice that affluent 19 year olds are easier to serve, in many ways, than 30 year olds attending part time.  

Bluntly, my former employer -- Proprietary U -- did all of those things back in the 1990’s.  Clayton Christensen wasn’t there, but I was.  I taught full-time, twelve months a year, as did everyone else.  The place was resolutely career-focused.  And it recruited with legendary vigor.

Imitating the for-profits is not the way to go.  I’m thinking we need to try a very different direction.

To this point, most people in traditional higher ed have regarded the for-profits, if at all, as interlopers or, at best, competitors.  What if, instead, we regarded them as a permanent feature of the higher ed landscape?  How might we deal with them?

Delegate.  Let them do what they do best, and let public higher ed do what it does best.

Here’s what that might mean:

Let the for-profits handle the really high-cost vocational programs.  It’s their niche, they’re (sometimes) good at it, and they can charge enough to sustain themselves while doing it.  

Let community colleges focus on their historic strength: general education.  Let us do the transferable gen eds that we do so well, and cheaply, and leave the difficult high-cost stuff to the folks who can charge accordingly.

This might look like surrender, but I think of it as specialization.  Since community colleges have a long history of teaching, say, English composition, let us focus on that.  Let us focus on the stuff that we do more of than anybody else, so we can get better at it.  Let the for-profits do what they do best, and let the cc’s do what the cc’s do best.

This position puts me outside the usual camps.  One camp says that the way to compete with the for-profits is to do it all.  Another says that we should become more like them, and focus more intensely on workforce training.  I’m thinking those are both basically doomed.  The way to thrive in the new normal is not to try to be great at everything; the world is just too big.  Instead, it’s to find something you do really well, and own that.  Let the for-profits handle HVAC repair and dental hygiene; let the community colleges do the first two years of four year degrees.

Wise and worldly readers, what say you?  Does this seem sustainable, or is this just surrender by another name?  Is there a better way that doesn’t involve the magical appearance of the money fairy?