By Virginia B. Smith
COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES have enjoyed several near monopolies
that have protected their almost exclusive share of the market of certain students
who seek higher education. With the advent of technology, however, many colleges
and universities may find that their monopolies no longer function as effectively
in bringing prospective students to their doorsteps.
Whether or not all institutions of higher education support the changes that technology
offers, they need to prepare for its challenges if they plan to remain competitive
in attracting students during the 21st century.
Monopoly #1: Offer a degree = offer the instruction to get it
Higher education has generally assumed that the institution that awards a certificate
or degree has a near monopoly in providing the instruction that will lead to the
degree. We have assumed, in short, that receiving a degree is inextricably linked
to earning credit, and that credit for the most part is earned through courses, some
designated number of which must be taken at the institution conferring the degree.
Even though this monopoly has been modified by providing transfer credit, that
credit also is based on instruction provided in courses at a campus-based institution.
But technology, along with new emphases on validating learning derived from technically
mediated instruction, has spurred us to give more attention to assessment in general.
In traditional classrooms we were content to consider grades, seat time and contact
hours as the valid measures of progress toward a degree. Since these are difficult
if not impossible to apply to distance education, there is growing demand to improve
techniques that validate what has been learned-in other words, assessment of learning
If learning can be successfully validated by assessment techniques, then controlling
the processes of instruction loses its primary quality assurance role. This in turn
leads to the possible de-coupling of instruction and assessment.
Some would argue that this has long been the case at Oxford and Cambridge. But
neither Oxford nor Cambridge would allow a person to write the final if they had
not been enrolled in the college and participated in many, if not all, of its educational
Many American colleges offer some credit by examination: through challenge exams,
the College Level Entrance Program (CLEP), portfolio assessment for learning gained
through experience, or similar programs. But these usually take place in an institution
that is providing some of the instruction and awarding the degree. Only Regents College,
in New York state, and Edison College, in New Jersey, may be exceptions to this.
De-coupling assessment and instruction within an institutional setting has far different
consequences than de-coupling outside the institution.
Western Governors University may provide a model for an institution that offers
a degree in which all the learning needed for the degree is validated by assessment
without reference to how or where that learning is acquired. If degrees based on
assessment of learning-rather than on credits earned through classroom-based instruction-become
more available and popular, the market for instruction could change dramatically.
Monopoly #2: Location = convenience
For many colleges and universities, offering students a convenient campus location
has always been assumed to be a crucial factor in maintaining or increasing student
enrollments. In many states, this is particularly true of small independent institutions
and community colleges, most of which rely heavily on local or regional student enrollments.
As the average age of college students continues to rise in the United States,
it could be argued that convenience is becoming even more important. Many of these
older students prefer to remain where they are currently located, whether because
of jobs, families or other responsibilities.
Through the educational opportunities offered through distance learning, however,
students can enroll in a course of study, complete their course work and receive
a degree right at home. The University of Maryland and a number of other institutions
already offer this form of learning. Since distance learning requires access to computer
terminals and modems rather than traditional classrooms or campuses, it threatens
to erode the location monopoly that many colleges and universities currently enjoy.
It could be argued, of course, that correspondence courses have always threatened
the location monopoly. These courses, while popular for some students, have not seriously
reduced the numbers of students at local colleges. Distance learning, so the argument
goes, offers no additional threat to local college enrollments.
This reasoning, however, fails to account for the interactive possibilities of
new technologies as compared to the "snail mail" slowness of correspondence
courses. Whereas correspondence courses place all of the burden of motivation on
the student, recent technological advances offer students wider, quicker and more
interactive access to their teachers, to other students and to campus services-however
removed they are physically. Learning through computers also can be a lot more fun.
Like correspondence classes, distance learning will most likely attract certain
kinds of students (such as those who can work on their own). But they offer a world
of different possibilities for more engaged learning. If this form of instruction
grows more popular, those institutions that rely primarily on local or regional enrollments
will need to understand the implications of distance learning for their own student
Monopoly #3: Offer a program = offer the courses
In the past, when a college added a program of study, the college assumed that
it would hire the faculty members who would provide all of the instruction for that
program. Now it is becoming more feasible to "outsource" courses; through
technology, colleges and universities can provide classes on campus without local
These courses can be offered entirely through a computer lab, in conjunction with
lectures provided through a large-screen format in a traditional classroom, or in
conjunction with a video of lectures that the student can view at home. As a result
of these possibilities, offering a program of study to meet the changing needs of
students might no longer require such a substantial investment; the college might
cover only a portion of the required courses with its own faculty and import the
remainder of the classes through technological means.
This shift would, of course, create a very different "feel" for the
institution. Much more so than today, each college would need to determine its strengths
and weaknesses. For instance, to what extent-and in what fields-should a college
become a producer or an importer of instruction? If a college could not financially
support an entire program of locally produced classes, it could import key courses
and offer others locally, so that students could still benefit from that program
Each college also would have the opportunity to market its strengths, exporting
its best classes elsewhere. In such an institution, the role of the faculty in quality
control of imported instruction could become as crucial as maintaining the quality
of classes produced locally.
The erosion of the first two monopolies listed above-in which the institution
providing the degree also provides the instruction, and in which the convenience
of instruction is based on the location of a campus-could shift the competitive edge
away from campus-based institutions. This is particularly true for those colleges
and universities whose students are most likely to take advantage of the opportunities
provided by assessment-based degrees or distance learning.
But the erosion of the third monopoly-in which a college offering a program also
provides almost all instruction for that program-could enhance the competitive edge
of those campus-based institutions that understand how to maintain an appropriate
balance between imported and home-grown instruction.
There has been much discussion about a projected increase in demand for higher
education during the next decade. At the same time that the demand is expected to
increase, however, the market is changing. Those colleges and universities that fail
to understand the market's effects on student demand-that is, those institutions
that do not stay in touch with the preferences of their students in relation to the
new opportunities that the market offers-do so at their own peril. u
Virginia B. Smith is president emerita of Vassar College