Simmons College in Boston made headlines this week with the news that two online graduate degree programs it launched less than five years ago are on track to generate more tuition revenue than its 30 other graduate programs combined and nearly as much as its undergraduate offerings.

The programs, in nursing and social work, are powered by 2U and provide another showcase of just how much traditional universities have been leveraging online learning to innovate in novel ways to serve more students (even as the partnership with 2U means Simmons is likely not keeping the majority of the revenue).

As the associate dean for online education, Dana Grossman Leeman, at the historic women’s college is quoted in the Inside Higher Ed piece about online learning: “I’m tired of folks saying this is way of the future. It’s not. It’s now.”

In concert with that observation, just last week the Clayton Christensen Institute released new research by Alana Dunagan titled “College Transformed: Five institutions leading the charge in innovation.” The paper not only happens to profile Simmons College, but also four other traditional colleges and universities leading novel innovations—Arizona State University and its Global Freshman Academy, Northeastern University and its Level Bootcamp, the University of Wisconsin and its UW Flex program, and Southern New Hampshire University and its College for America.

The colleges profiled are diverse. Some are small and others are large. Some are public and some are private. But they all were able to innovate in different ways to address different problems and goals. Many now have deep track records of innovating. And all intend to keep doing it, even if some of the innovations profiled don’t ultimately prove to be as successful as what Simmons has done.

The paper offers a helpful frame to categorize the innovations—those that are sustaining hybrid innovations versus those that are disruptive—and the implications of each of those choices. The big caveat to keep in mind is that these innovations are always relative to something else, as the theory of disruptive innovation is essentially a theory of competition.

That said, broadly speaking, sustaining hybrid innovations can do such things as help expand an institution’s footprint and serve more students, bring in more revenue, and boost efficiency. These innovations often require a heavyweight team with the freedom to rethink an institution’s resources and processes to get them right.

Disruptive innovations tackle affordability and accessibility in novel ways and always require an autonomous business unit to not only rethink an institution’s resources and processes but also its fundamental priorities.

Each of the institutions is tackling different challenges through the innovations profiled in the paper.

ASU’s Global Freshman Academy is an on-ramp into ASU. It allows students who lack the traditional grades and credentials to gain admission into college to take their first year of school online. And, in its big stroke of ingenuity and shifting of risk, students only pay for the credits if and when they complete them. The purpose is to maximize access to college rather than boost ASU’s prestige along the traditional metrics used to judge colleges.

Northeastern’s Level Bootcamp has a couple offerings, but its main one, Level Core, is an $8,000 bootcamp program focused on data analytics that was developed in tight partnership with employers. Employers are also embedded in the curriculum, as they engage with students throughout the course. The innovation is part and parcel of Northeastern president Joseph Aoun’s admonition: “It’s time to stop thinking of higher education as an experience people take part in once during their young lives … and begin thinking of it as a platform for life-long learning.”

The University of Wisconsin built an online, competency-based program, UW Flex, to address Wisconsin’s specific workforce needs. It is one of the first programs in the nation to receive permission from the Department of Education to be eligible to receive federal funding for its direct assessment competency-based program.

And Southern New Hampshire University created its online, competency-based College for America to target working adults through employer partnerships through an autonomous unit that had the freedom to rethink everything about how the degree would function, including the price point.

What the research shows clearly is that traditional higher education is capable of innovating, but that each institution will have to figure out what is right for its circumstance. As Simmons’s president, Helen Drinan, is quoted in Inside Higher Ed: “I wish I could say there’s a panacea in here for a small college, but there isn’t. The Simmons model doesn’t work for a small institutions that doesn’t already have strengths in graduate education.”

That’s useful to bear in mind as institutions seek to innovate. Rather than copy best practices, better to find the right practices for the circumstance. Dunagan’s paper offers a start for institutions seeking to wrestle with that puzzle.

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  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.