Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Who’s Our Competition?

It used to be relatively easy to identify a given community college’s competition.  It might be another community college nearby that draws, at least in part, from the same feeder communities.  (That varies by state; some states have tightly defined “service areas,” whether as counties or as “districts.”  In others, such as Massachusetts, colleges just draw from whoever wants to attend.)  If there were a for-profit or two in the area, add that.  In a given program, there might be some rivalry with a nearby four-year school, although that tends to be fairly muted.  And that would be about it.

That’s changing.  

The first serious wave of change was the online for-profits.  When the University of Phoenix hit critical mass, it was suddenly everybody’s competitor.  Others for-profits followed.  Then non-profits started to step up with online options, as much by necessity as by inclination, so a student in a relatively isolated community suddenly had a panoply of options.

Now we’re seeing possible competition from new corners. MOOCs are still in their infancy, but are already making a mark.  If they can solve the “business model” issue, they could become formidable.  (Alternately, they may simply become variations on Open Educational Resource providers for traditional colleges as a way to ensure their survival.)  Western Governors University is experimenting with competency-based credits, and SNHU’s College for America has gone all-in with competencies.  (So far, enrollment is mostly employer-based, but that’s not necessarily intrinsic to the model.)  Credit for Prior Learning is gaining steam, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it take off in the next few years, particularly for working adults.

We’re at the awkward stage now at which the external market is changing faster than our awareness of it.  That’s dangerous.  

On the public side, I’d love to see more self-awareness of the sector as a sector, and some reflection on what we can do uniquely well.  

In the postwar boom years, when most community colleges in America were founded, they mostly followed one of only a few models.  They were ‘transfer’ focused -- the old “junior college” model -- or vo-tech focused, often with a distinctive regional flavor.  Over time, the two models tended to converge, and both of them added remediation on the front end.  The converged version took on its own name -- the “comprehensive” model -- and was based on geographic scarcity.  If a college was the only practical commuting option for students in a given area, then it had to take a crack at being all things to all people; if it didn’t offer something, after all, then that thing didn’t get offered.  After a while, it wasn’t weird to see the same college offer basic arithmetic, air conditioning repair, and philosophy.

That “comprehensive” model makes sense when providers are few and far between.  And it works particularly well when enrollments are expanding and funding is available.

But the world is changing faster than our awareness of it.  The funding crunch is pretty well established at this point, even if the reasons for it remain controversial.  Some who’ve done fairly well under the traditional system are digging in their heels to defend it, even as its claim to being The Only Way is becoming untenable.  (I was especially discouraged to see this story in IHE, about gradual economic recovery in the states, being presented as a return to normal. It isn’t, and the illusion that it is is dangerous.)  Now, the defining condition of knowledge is abundance, rather than scarcity.  Nobody has a regional monopoly anymore.  In a world in which everybody has a choice of many providers, each with a different strength and method, the “all things to all people” model doesn’t make sense anymore.  

In some ways, the adjustment to abundance is easy.  Open Educational Resources can fit nicely in the existing institutional model, and take the edge off student costs without fundamentally challenging what we do.  That may buy us some badly needed time.  But the basic model of prerequisites, gatekeeping, and comprehensiveness is fraying.

When a product moves from scarcity to abundance, producers can be in a tough spot.  I’m just old enough to remember when music was expensive.  Twenty years ago, an hour-long cd cost sixteen dollars in early 1990’s money.  Now, ten bucks gets you a month of music.  Record companies have taken a beating, and musicians who used to support themselves with recordings now either tour more or get day jobs.  

I’m thinking we need to redefine our product.  We have to be able to explain what we offer that you can’t just get from a free online instructional video.  Instead of being “junior” colleges that are, themselves, junior research universities, let’s focus on doing better the core of what we do.  We do success for those who don’t succeed elsewhere.  For-profits will only do that as long as it’s profitable.  MOOCs offer access, but their attrition rates are awful.  Exclusive colleges won’t even let the average student in.  

That’s an argument for not pretending to be “junior” versions of other things, and instead embracing the uniqueness of what we offer.  Being all things to all people only worked when there was no competition.  Now there is, and it’s not going away.  If our awareness is able to catch up to our reality, we can focus clearly on the access mission that we do best.