This guest post was written by Dr. Lori E. Varlotta, President of Hiram College

In the face of a pandemic that strains the nation in complex, multifaceted ways, America’s liberal arts colleges have much to offer. At their best, they produce the kinds of interdisciplinary thinkers that can make progress in understanding the biological, psychological, sociological, and other tolls this virus extracts, and in navigating the sense-making process that leads to healing. 

But first, liberal arts colleges have to survive the pandemic. Even before COVID-19, these institutions faced serious challenges including unsustainable business models, steep tuition-discounting, shrinking traditional student enrollments, and more. These challenges require substantial institutional change, and the pandemic has only raised the stakes. 

Hiram College, located in Northeast Ohio’s fiercely competitive college and university market, has long grappled with the harsh realities of the liberal arts sector. To address them head-on, Hiram engaged in ambitious change efforts around our traditional model well before the pandemic struck. We also studied our situation through the lens of Disruptive Innovation Theory and began exploring a new model that will allow us to serve adult learners in ways we never have before. 

While the “new normal” for which Hiram was preparing didn’t anticipate a pandemic, these change efforts can put Hiram in a position of strength to weather the current storm and help the nation recover.

The New Liberal Arts and a new perspective

Over the past several years, Hiram’s senior cabinet invited faculty and staff to join in developing a pervasive and systemic change process such that Hiram would embody the New Liberal Arts. In a short time frame by academia’s standards, Hiram faculty designed an urgent-challenge-based core curriculum, guaranteed that all students complete a high-impact program such as an internship, study-away trip, or research project, and embedded reflective assignments in which students connect their classroom and out-of classroom learning via essays, videos, podcasts and more, all captured in their e-portfolio. 

Hiram also rolled out Tech and Trek™, a 1:1 mobile program that equips every student, faculty, and staff member with uniform, state-of-the-art technologies, and Learn More, Earn More, Spend Less, a new tuition model that reduces the published cost of tuition and mandatory fees by 35%, offers free summer courses, and makes 100 paid internships available to students. These innovations set Hiram on a new trajectory that was paving the path forward in a pre-COVID world, and that have proven fortuitous since. 

In considering the kind of further direction Hiram needed, I explored different change theories and happened upon Disruption Innovation Theory as articulated by the Clayton Christensen Institute. At that point, I came to a startling realization: For years, I had erroneously defined “disruptive change” as pervasive change to an existing system that maintains the same consumer base and financial underpinnings. I did not understand that the phrase signals change meant to attract a new audience or consumer, and/or be supported by a new business model. 

That a-ha! moment propelled me to work with the cabinet in a reexamination of Hiram’s primary and secondary target audiences—traditional-age, residential students and adult students, respectively. More specifically, it prompted us to determine whether we would keep them “intact” as our top two audiences or more narrowly define either or both. In this vein, we made two important decisions: 1) our primary audience would remain the traditional student population that had long been Hiram’s bread and butter, and 2) our secondary market—adult students whom we had long served primarily via a weekend college bachelor’s program—would be redefined and more narrowly targeted. 

Rethinking how to serve adult learners

It’s the reconsideration of this secondary market for which Disruptive Innovation Theory was the most impactful. We had previously imagined that as Hiram turned more of its attention toward adult students, we would target a couple of adult groups: students who had dropped out of our own Weekend College Program prior to earning a degree, or adult students in low-level jobs who saw the bachelor’s degree as a pathway to promotion. In both cases, we would enhance the courses in our current adult studies pathways as part of a “recruit or recruit back” strategy, helping students achieve an even more rigorous set of learning outcomes.

Disruptive Innovation Theory exploded those assumptions and allowed us to completely rethink this secondary market. For example, it helped us focus on the growing market of adult learners who need new skills to advance in their careers (upskilling) or to change careers altogether (reskilling). As it now turns out, this market is set to erupt in the wake of COVID-19 as entire sectors are gutted and the job market is sure to take years to reconfigure and recover. 

As we further unpacked the defining features of this theory—an emphasis on those not yet served by the institution, the simplification vs. enhancement of our educational product, and construction of a new stand-alone business model—we could use its lens to help us redefine this adult learner market and the model that supports it in four key ways:

  1. Focus on nonconsumers. We are now in the process of identifying a wholly new target audience: working adults who wish to upskill but would never have seen themselves as full- or part-time students at a liberal arts college like Hiram. To reach this group, we will work directly with their employers to co-create programs that meet both their talent development needs and the employee’s interest in improving their skill set. 
  2. Co-create, with employers, a professionally rigorous, more accessible credential. We have shifted from our original intentions of strengthening courses in the bachelor’s degree program to imagining a series of discrete certificates or badges that could stand alone, be bundled in ways that signal competency in specific areas, or be stacked together over time to build a bachelor’s degree. We are partnering with employers from the outset to design content; this ensures the content meets their talent development needs and encourages them to subsidize the experience for their employees.
  3. Rely on a different group of instructors. Over 90% of Hiram’s full-time, tenure-track faculty have earned a terminal degree in the area they teach, and teaching is their primary duty. Additionally, the College employs dozens of master’s-degree staff who are invited, at times, to serve as professors of practice. Such assignments are part of their ancillary duties. We now envision using some master’s-degree staff to lead this innovation as instructors in new programs.
  4. Design of a new cost-revenue model. Originally, we had anticipated tweaking our existing bachelor’s pathway for adult students, which would have kept intact the business model that undergirds that program. As we look now to utilize a different set of instructors, work with employers as content experts, and atomize the degree into credentials of immediate value, we are crafting a new cost-revenue formula.

For almost two centuries, Hiram has provided students with a bachelor’s degree that empowered them to achieve social mobility and serve businesses, organizations, and communities extraordinarily well. Until now, the vast majority of our students have been traditional, residential ones. We will not leave that population behind or abandon the recently implemented New Liberal Arts model mentioned above. 

But with both incrementally and dramatically changing times, Hiram is interested in creating a parallel model that will serve a whole different set of learners, and wants that new model to include clear pathways to a different type of credential. We know we can add value to adult learners’ lives and their work, helping the nation recover and ultimately thrive—and we are ready to disrupt our model to provide it.


  • Christensen Institute
    Christensen Institute