Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn, authors of the seminal book on online education Disrupting Class, have just published an article in Harvard Magazine on the state of American colleges and the coming changes to the collegiate landscape: “Colleges in Crisis: Disruptive change comes to American higher education.”
Their article, written for the Harvard alumni community, aims to help those unfamiliar with online education to understand the potential positive impact that online education will have for American higher education, and even for an institution as august as Harvard. It seems to me that the article might resonate in a slightly more accessible way for boards and heads at independent schools, and I suggest it highly for those groups.
I think that their article has a number of salient points for independent school heads and boards to consider:
… The business model that has characterized American higher education is at—or even past—its breaking point… Undergraduate tuition has risen dramatically: at a 6.3 percent annual clip for nearly the last three decades—even faster than the much-decried 4.9 percent annual cost increases plaguing the healthcare industry. The full increase in the price of higher education has actually been hidden from many students and families over the years because gifts from alumni, earnings from private university endowments, subsidies from state tax revenues for public universities, and federal subsidies for students have been used to mitigate some costs. But universities are exhausting these mechanisms.
Christensen and Horn point to a business model that is succeeding (instead of just “treading water”), noting that education is seeing the disruptive forces seen by other industries (and predicted three years ago by them in Disrupting Class):
The success of these online competitors and the crisis among many of higher education’s traditional institutions are far from unique. These are familiar steps in a process known as “disruptive innovation” that has occurred in many industries, from accounting and music to communications and computers. It is the process by which products and services that were once so expensive, complicated, inaccessible, and inconvenient that only a small fraction of people could access them, are transformed into simpler, more accessible and convenient forms that are also, ultimately, lower in cost. We are seeing it happen more rapidly than one could have imagined in higher education, as online learning has exploded: roughly 10 percent of students took at least one online course in 2003, 25 percent in 2008, and nearly 30 percent in the fall of 2009.
Christensen and Horn end with a commentary on how an individual university (or, I would add, independent school) could embrace online learning in a way that moves the university from “treading water” to becoming more long-term sustainable and to meet the mission of offering a high quality, accessible education to more:
This stance exposes an even more significant problem that is forcing many American universities outside the top institutions to the brink of collapse. Although some traditional universities have used online learning as a sustaining innovation—in effect disrupting their individual classes—almost none have used it to change their business model in any significant way. Whenever we have seen a disruptive innovation reinvent a sector, change has resulted from the joint action of a new technology and an accompanying new business model. But cost increases and an increasingly broken business model—reliance on ever-rising tuition, more endowment income or government support, and research funding, all wrapped up in expensive physical campuses with large support staffs—continue to plague much of higher education.
Certainly, these are thoughts for our independent school boards and heads to consider… and act upon.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)