The Community College Disruption

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Aug 15, 2008

Previously I’ve written about how adult distance learning is proving itself as a fast-growing disruptive innovation. As many have pointed out to me, there are many other disruptive innovations in higher education that are fulfilling critical needs in our society, including community colleges.

It’s a disruption Clay Christensen has written about before (see “Disruptive Innovation for Social Change” in the December 2006 Harvard Business Review). The Christian Science Monitor is the latest to pick up on this growing disruption. In the August 4, 2008 article “Community Colleges: A Great Return on Investment,” Haas Graduate Business School professor Kathleen Connell chronicles the phenomenon of more and more students choosing to attend affordable community colleges instead of the traditional 4-year schools that are far more expensive.

Nearly half, or 6.5 million, of all undergraduate students now attend the roughly 1,200 community colleges out there, according to the article. And they bear the classic hallmarks of a disruptive innovation.

They are far more affordable, convenient, and accessible. $2,361 for tuition compared to $6,185 at public four-year institutions and $16,640 for out-of-state students. Students can live at home and attend. And they don’t have the conventional admission standards.

They also fill different purposes and can be judged on different metrics from traditional four-year schools as they target nonconsumers. They are far more market-driven, as the article makes clear; they educate 60 percent of new nurses and credential 80 percent of firefighters, law enforcement officers, and EMTs. Forty-one percent also offer online degrees, which often serves mid-career professionals – business leaders love them for retraining workforces, Dr. George R. Boggs, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) said. They also offer much smaller classes.

Of course, like any disruptive innovation, they don’t offer the same performance as the traditional offering right now, but continue to improve in other areas. Here, as the article points out, you lose out on the vast array of student activities and sports and lack a student community.

I’ll continue to write about disruptions in higher education, as the freer market leads to many more in this space, but we’d love to hear from others about what disruptions they are seeing in this space and how they might play out.

– Michael Horn

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