rock the bloat

A recent article in Forbes asks if higher education is the next bubble to burst, after housing, high tech, and the stock market.  It includes this observation:

“Schools suffer from an administrative bloat, as they are expanding their bureaucracies significantly faster than the numbers of instructors and researchers . . . Since the early 1990’s,  spending on administration per student increased by 66%, while instructional spending per student rose by 39%.”

My reaction may strike you as predictably defensive, since as a system-office bureaucrat I’m doubly removed from the classroom, and a direct beneficiary of that 66%.

Yet I can’t help but think the writer is missing an important point.  After all, one or two other things have also been changing since the early 1990s, among them the whole way humans create, store and disseminate knowledge.  That has a profound affect on the purpose and organization of our universities, and the work they perform.

The internet has challenged us to redefine what we do.  We’re still working up a new definition, but we know it’s no longer mostly to deliver content.  And we’re groping around for analogies and business models that might help.

A few weeks ago NPR interviewed web and business guru Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan.  He explained the “showroom” phenomenon in retail:  shoppers go to the store for the immersive, tactile experience, and to get the “brand story,” but then they make the actual purchase elsewhere.  In this world, Gillingham-Ryan argues, retailers have to be ready on both fronts:  they need a lean, economical on-line presence, supported by a deeply satisfying in-person experience.  As he put it:

“I think the store couldn’t compete [with the web site] in terms of being a better place to transact business. But what it does a lot better is it tells the brand story, and it also provides service. And so stores have adapted to do those things really, really well. The ones that do that are succeeding.”

This made sense to me, as I think about the way my wife and I go shopping, spend money, and get help.  The analogy to university campuses doesn’t hold up completely, but there’s something instructive here.

Our colleges and universities will be more than just the latest speculative bubble, if we focus on what our campuses deliver that a MOOC can’t:  the immersive, physical, and social context that accelerates learning.

IMG00093-20121207-1120Providing such wraparound service in an intentional way isn’t easy or cheap.  It means, among other things, adding a coordinating layer to the institution’s workforce, so the traditional model of essentially solitary faculty work in teaching and research is somehow brought together, coalescing into a meaningful, coherent student experience.

If I’m right, then our institutions’ very survival depends on bolstering our ability to connect faculty to each other, to colleagues in student affairs, and to students and their families in new ways.  It could be 66% well spent.


5 thoughts on “rock the bloat

  1. Ken,

    I agree with you partly here if more of that 66% were working on your golden mean. That doesn’t appear to be happening at most traditional institutions. It is the instructors who are the ones expected to make it all work out. To make matters worse the budget cuts that work force while hiring more administrators to try to double the performance of those who are remaining.. But then again we’re the ones who came back to the cave to have everyone turn around and see the light rather than the shadows.


    1. Very good point, John — thank you. It COULD by 66% well spent, but budget cuts elsewhere (and the alarming shift in faculty hires from full-time to part-time) are also responsible for that imbalanced growth.

  2. Ken – Customers, and I believe students, can also be segmented by their dominant modality. That is, one segment prefers the “buying” experience. This segment wants for the most part the traditional college experience, while they may rely on on-line resources to a lessr degree. Another segment is primarily “transactional”…meaning they are not interested is developing relationships with other students or faculty and just want the basic product (i.e., credential, degree, certificate, basic infomation). This latter segment will gravitate to MOOCs and total on-line solutions.

    I guess the question is, with the rapid change in technology, howe fast is the transactional segment growing.

  3. Yep — and who’s in that transactional segment? So far it looks like it’s the students least at risk. If that pattern holds, then in the publics we’ll want to be careful to keep the in-person experiences somehow available to those traditionally underserved whose “dominant modality” doesn’t happen to be on-line. Thanks for commenting, Bill — it’s an important point.

    1. Actually, I think a good portion of the transactional segment is composed of students at risk…for instance, 1st gen students that haven’t had sufficient exposure to what can be extracted from a traditional learning experience. Many in this segemnt are attracted to for-profit on-line programs..and the persistence rates are not good.

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