Reinventing the higher education experience: better online programs are just half the battle

To attract students for a premium-priced service through COVID-19 and beyond, universities need to reinvent the experience they offer

The Economist‘s analysis

The Economist provides two must-read articles in its August 8, 2020 edition about how COVID-19 is accelerating the refactoring of universities and colleges. [Feature image courtesy of The Economist, Aug , 2020.]

They provide hard-hitting data to illustrate two critical economic forces:

  • The collapse of international students attending colleges in the US, Canada, UK, and Australia (who account for up to 1/4 of revenues)daunted by a restrictions of visas, travel, and campus life.
  • The decline, increasing price-sensitivity, and fluidity of domestic studentslooking for value and convenience.
Two graphs from Economist Aug 8 2020 illustrating the number of international students enrolling in universities by country and projections of financial losses in Britain higher education
Courtesy The Economist, Aug 8 2020

Facing these losses, some higher-education institutions won’t survive. Those that do will resize and reinvent.

What are the consequences?

In the context of reinvention, this is an extraordinary opportunity for OPM providersto help universities to market and deliver more compelling and effective online courses and at the right price. This will take universities into a new and increasingly competitive market of online offerings at dramatically lower prices (e.g. Coursera) that can be more easily commoditized. So, online courses will emerge as an essential new channel for universities, but they will also exacerbate a bigger reinvention challenge…

The much bigger business challenge universities must tackle to survive and thrive is reinventing the premium experience they offer. Universities have been able to charge top prices because of the immersive, branded, social and cultural experience they’ve been able to provide. Think back to your college experience. What were the most valuable parts?

  1. Learning and learning to learn?
  2. Living away from home?
  3. Making new friends?
  4. Exploring new cultures?
  5. Gaining life skills and confidence?

I’m confident that universities can quickly develop richer online offerings to tackle some of the goals of 1. But, necessary, restrictive, and expensive requirements to make campus life safe through COVID-19 and beyondfor example, virtual classes, no dorm-room socializing, limited sportsmake delivering the social and cultural benefits (2-5) much harder. If universities are to continue to attract students with a premium-priced experience, this is where we need to creatively reinvent what higher-education offers and how to deliver it.

Solutions and sources of inspiration

Solutions can come from many sources. I think many can be found in the commercial sector (despite these being challenged as I write!)the best for-profit education institutions for sure, but also the customer-centered experiences conceived by the best private language schools and even chains of gyms and hotels.

Crisis creates opportunity. Now is the time to embrace online programs and look furtherto rethink a higher-education experience for today’s students and a durable future for universities and colleges.

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