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Ever since the early 80’s a different form of organization began to compete with Traditional Universities (TU) for their students. I call them “Capitalized Universities” (CU) because to me the main competitive advantage they have is the fact that their stock is publicly listed and this gives them virtually unrestricted access to capital.

At first their presence did not seem to constitute much of a threat. They were focusing on students who were older than the TU’s traditional 18-22 cohort, most of their marketing was aimed at students who had already failed at the TU and were therefore not the students TU sought to attract.

This began to change as the CUs ventured into other markets. For example, in 2008 over fifty percent of the teaching credentials in the State of Texas were granted to students enrolled in CUs. (In 1994 100% of the credentials were issued to students enrolled in TUs). Teacher education is one of the most profitable areas of academic preparation for TUs, it is in fact their bread and butter, and someone has been “eating their lunch.”

CUs competed successfully in teacher education in the State of Texas by providing easier access and a better time equation, that is 1) eliminating bureaucratic barriers universities had erected over years of being the only game in town and 2) offering courses at more convenient times to the students. Not only alternative teacher education programs offered by CUs in Texas have more students but also those students pass the state exam at greater rates than their TU counterparts. Since costs were essentially the same, and content tested by the credentialing exam was the same, (which made the TUs “prestige” factor equal for both the student or the employer), then it follows that the ease of access and time factor were the determining characteristics.

The CUs –your competition– came into being mostly as a result of the existing institutions’ use of available time. Offering courses that were scheduled at a convenient time for students made it possible for them to serve a group of clients the TUs turned their backs on. This market, which happens to be over 65% of the potential student market, set the foundation for their early success. Now they compete effectively for the TU’s cohort of 18-22 year olds, again by changing the time equation. Students who cannot afford to go to school full time, students who must work full time, students who have no interest in participating in sports, or Greek life, and have no patience for the distractions of student life on campus, in other words the focused, hard-working, goal-oriented, occupationally-oriented student, will find the CU’s attractive.

The factor of time is strategically the most important factor in achieving competitiveness in higher education. Time is important in four ways, 1) in the meeting of the client’s needs, 2) in the efficient utilization of plant and staff resources, 3) in the return on investment it brings both in the “public good” and the “private good” areas, and 4) in the production function associated with new learning.

About two years ago I had a chance to look at SWOT* analyses done by a consulting firm on six universities. I found that not one of them cited their use of time or any similar variable as either a weakness, or in comparison with others, as a strength or a threat. TU’s are stuck on the traditional model and apparently blind to its significance. It is time to regard time as the main strategic variable and address it from the four perspectives outlined above.

* SWOT is a method developed at Stanford University to examine four categories of factors affecting long-term planning in organizations. Today the method is generalized and most universities engage in it as one of their planning tools. In reading dozens of these over time and having participated with other faculty in developing another dozen or so, I find that universities seldom follow up on the findings by implementing strategies to overcome Weaknesses, limit Threats, build Strengths and take advantage of Opportunities. But isn’t the chart nice?