Posted by: Gregory Linton | 08/03/2011

Four Ways that Colleges and Universities Can Expand Their Enrollment

Hechinger Report | The top five ways universities can innovate to survive — and thrive.

This concise article by Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring provides some helpful ideas for advancing the mission of a college or university. It caused me to reflect on the four ways that businesses recruit more customers and how this relates to institutions of higher education.

(1) Businesses can motivate current customers to buy more of their existing products and services. Perhaps a parallel in higher education would be to encourage graduates to go on for a graduate degree at the same place. Or perhaps part-time students could be encouraged to enroll full time. Or donors could be encouraged to give more money. Christensen and Eyring seem to encourage something like this approach when they suggest cultivating loyalty among students, faculty, alumni, and other supporters.

(2) Business can recruit new customers to buy their existing products and services. This is usually accomplished through advertising  and special incentives, such as sales. Colleges and universities take this approach when they feel that what they offer would be attractive to potential students if they only knew about it. Some institutions experience limitations with this approach because of their location or demographics. If they are in an economically depressed area or a state with declining population, more advertising may not make much difference. The pool of potential students may be too shallow.

(3) Business can create new products and services that will produce more sales. This is a very popular approach in higher education. It’s the “Field of Dreams” approach: Build it and they will come. If the university has carried out a careful feasibility study and has established the need for and interest in a new program, then this approach can work well. The potential pitfall is that new programs can dilute the brand and create confusion about the institution’s identity if it is not clear how they fit with the mission. Christensen and Eyring warn against trying to be all things to all people. This is the scattershot approach. Throw a bunch of mud against the wall and some of it is bound to stick. I agree with the authors that it is best to do less with excellence than to do more with mediocrity.

The one area where the authors feel comfortable with this approach is adding online and hybrid courses. They see online education as a cost-effective way to serve more students, and it is a way to recruit students beyond the physical bounds of the campus.

(4) Businesses can create subsidiaries or daughter businesses. This approach is used in higher education when extension campuses are developed. Degree completion programs can function in this way when they are run by a director with little involvement or input from the traditional faculty. The authors’ promotion of online and hybrid courses may also fall into this category. Many universities view their online programs as something separate from the on-campus programs. I once was told by the director of a large online program at a university that his goal was to keep the on-campus faculty from meddling in that program, so he would do an end-run around the faculty by hiring part-time people to teach the courses. This kind of approach views the online program as a separate entity, a subsidiary, of the traditional programs. This is another possible way to expand the mission of an institution, especially if on-campus personnel would try to set up roadblocks.

So this article generated some reflections for me, and it has motivated me to read their book.

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