Given our combined expertise in the study of business innovation and working within the university setting, we decided to write The Innovative University to share some ideas about what innovation could make possible in higher education. We wanted to show how new strategies, many of them driven by online technology, make it possible to serve more students at lower cost while also increasing quality and improving the learning experience–something we saw in practice within our own university homes. Since then, the world has moved into a major economic downturn. Slow economic growth, high government and household debt, rising college tuition, declining graduation rates, and growing competition from the rapidly growing for-profit higher education sector combined to create a renewed sense of urgency for our message. We could see how the same online learning technologies that can benefit traditional institutions can also disrupt them. So, our message became cautiously optimistic. Online learning, we believe, will either disrupt traditional universities and colleges or create opportunities for them to serve more students and lead the country to greater prosperity. It depends on whether they cling to a model that has changed little in the past 150 years or embrace learning innovations made possible by new technology.
What forces are threatening traditional universities, and why does preserving them matter? Traditional universities are an indispensable cornerstone of society and culture. The college experience is transformative for so many people, and it is an experience people cannot get elsewhere. But while we can’t afford to lose the traditional college experience, we also can’t afford to support it on its current trajectory. In their race to constantly make themselves bigger and better, colleges and university have steadily driven up cost. They’ve lost focus on their once-modest missions and are now unsustainably overstretched and overcommitted. The economic downturn is exposing them, as seen by the increasing number of students who are jumping ship to alternative forms of higher education like community colleges, for-profit universities, technical institutes and online degree programs. We assert that colleges and universities must break with tradition and find innovative, less costly ways of performing their uniquely valuable functions, allowing them to once again become responsive to the needs of learners.