Disruptive Diplomas: The Higher Ed Dilemma

The concept of disruptive innovation extends to many areas of consumerism, and higher-education is no exception to this fact. Since the late 1980s, institutions have offered alternative study programs to the traditional 4-year degree, including online courses, specialized learning programs, and 2-year degree alternatives. Since the introduction of these programs, universities and colleges have struggled to compete within this sector, often-times failing to become viable competitors for a variety of reasons.


Oftentimes, individuals who pursue these avenues of education lack the resources, motivation or abilities to attend a 4-year program, and would be defined as non-consumers of this traditional model. Much of online learning’s success can be attributed to these individuals – those who desire something less traditional and more specialized from their education. These individuals “want to learn what they need to learn, when they want to learn it.”


In Seeing What’s Next, the authors address the conundrum of the online vs. traditional MBA, the discussion of which I found very engaging as I am currently enrolled in a traditional Master of Business Administration program, and a non-traditional Master of Entrepreneurship program. The authors argue that online MBA and job training programs may provide a viable alternative to traditional MBAs, as they tend to be more accessible to a broader population, and are more specific to target job markets. If cost or test scores are obstacles to traditional programs, individuals can pursue an online or job-training program.


In addition to improving access, online courses can provide added value to those who seek to learn about a specific industry, or desire a course of study to prepare them for a more specialized role. There is also some evidence that this specialization approach is in line with emerging trends in business, and that this may give non-traditional MBA graduates an advantage compared to traditional MBA graduates.


Despite these facts, there are many logical and practical reasons to pursue a traditional MBA. Four-year colleges and universities have access to a strong network of resources, processes and values as compared to non-traditional programs. These resources include high-profile faculty, endowments and campuses. Many students appreciate learning from a “master” of the craft, regardless of the distinction this will afford them post-graduately. Similarly, endowments can afford more opportunity to students, and well-maintained campuses can provide the environment students seek to network and learn. As for their processes, 4-year programs maintain a highly refined recruitment and admission process, and are committed to developing comprehensive curricula, all in an attempt to attract the best candidates to their institution. For many pursuing higher education, these factors are incredibly important, and can resonate with their style of learning and academic goals.


Most importantly, 4-year programs maintain strong values, which contribute to their success and the success of their students. These values include providing competitive compensation to professors, conducting meaningful research, and developing state-of-the-art facilities. While these resources, processes and values are likely important to anyone pursuing a 4-year degree, the success of non-traditional programs proves that not all students require or value these elements of higher-education.


The emergence of non-traditional learning programs proves there is asymmetry of motivation within the realm of higher-education. Online programs disrupted the market successfully because they targeted non-consumers of education, and maintain their success by focusing on this demographic. Traditional programs have attempted to compete with this disruption, but many programs have fallen short, as their courses do not fit the needs of those who would choose the non-traditional model. Many universities attempt to replicate their traditional offerings within their online programs, alienating those consumers who value the specialization and flexibility of online programs.


The authors argue that traditional 4-year colleges and universities should not “flee” at the sight of this disruption, but instead could consider developing online courses to “round out” their offerings, while reducing operating costs and overhead. At this point, both models remain profitable, but continue to attract different demographics. The authors also predict that the effect of online learning disruptors on the traditional model will likely be felt the most at the 2nd and 3rd tier colleges, as their demographic is more closely aligned to that of online learning programs.


From a socio-cultural standpoint, this non-traditional model has changed what it means to have access to education. It reaches and affords opportunity to a wider population of individuals, narrowing the gaps in opportunity, and improving access to anyone with the desire to further their education. All of this is important in bringing equality and opportunity to otherwise overshot demographics, helping to bridge the gaps between people, and in turn, driving more innovation. Similarly, this disruptive innovation has encouraged traditional 4-year programs to innovate beyond their historical models, leading to the development of creative supplementary courses and methods, and access to a wider student population.


In summary, it’s important to analyze one’s professional motivations, reasons for pursuing higher-education, and resources and abilities in deciding which avenue of higher-education to pursue. There is no “right” or “wrong” answer to this question.  In fact, a hybrid approach may be the correct approach for an individual, (as is true in my case)!


Source: Christensen, C.M., Anthony, S.D., & Roth, E.A. (2004). Seeing What’s Next: Using the Theories of Innovation to Predict Industry Change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing Company

2 thoughts on “Disruptive Diplomas: The Higher Ed Dilemma

  1. Nicely written, I agree with you. I can personally attest to the fact that getting my degree online was the only thing that made sense. I had a job the entire time I was earning my undergraduate degree, and now I still do. In fact, I may be starting a second job soon! After all, it’s going to take some capital if I want to start my own business. So I need to work hard for it. So I’m definitely all in favor of alternative learning! It’s not a one-size fits all kind of thing.


  2. The thing with online education is that it is meant to help those who wouldn’t have an opportunity to attend college otherwise, based on scheduling conflicts. I believe, that in the future, most programs will become online programs. As more and more students get denied because of the number of students enrolling in traditional colleges and universities, online schooling will become a much more viable option. The population is only increasing and most colleges will have lower acceptance rates…even though they are filling every spot they have available. This is when the need for the online colleges to emerge. It will be a huge business in the future!

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