Another disruption in higher education: the teaching university


Oct 22, 2008

Let’s revisit the topic of disruption in higher education, but from a different angle. In the past, I’ve written about community colleges and online universities targeting non-consumption, but there is a policy dimension to this as well.

Henry Eyring has a great piece about it in Strategy & Innovation called “Let Disruption Fix Higher Education” (Innosight, LLC, the consulting firm that Clayton Christensen co-founded, publishes Strategy & Innovation).

In the article, Eyring writes that the average cost of a 4-year degree has risen 76 percent in the past 10 years. Unsurprisingly, government feels the need to halt this. There have been reports—The Spellings Commission’s, for example—and Congressional action. One such act proposes creating “lists to embarrass colleges that increase their tuition significantly.”

As Eyring points out, although well intended, this is unlikely to have real impact. The real answer? Disruption—namely teaching universities disrupting research universities.

A key point from the article is that teaching universities are less expensive because they don’t have a cost component devoted to a research university’s real product and priority: its research (nope, not preparing its students for the workforce!). Although the classroom works similarly in both of these environments, because the two universities types have different value propositions, profit models or priorities, and processes (in other words, a different business model), the two are actually quite different. With different metrics to judge its different and lower-cost business model, the teaching university is disruptive relative to the research university.

The corollary might be that online universities and community colleges are really subsets of the teaching university category, which is a more descriptive term perhaps? Or one could argue that online universities have a new classroom labor model as well and therefore are a different category? I’ll have to think more about this–and would welcome comments, but read the article to learn more and see how this model is changing the higher-education landscape—as well as to read Eyring’s proposals for how government could act.

There are other disruptions emerging in higher education that change the classroom labor model, such as Smarthinking’s StraighterLine, which is worth a blog post some time soon.

– Michael B. Horn

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.