Colleges and Universities, What Business Are You In?

August 24, 2020

Colleges and Universities, What Business Are You In?

May 29, 2023

The wise author and academic Clayton Christensen coined the phrase “disruptive innovation.” A couple of years ago, right before he passed away, he predicted that half the colleges and universities in the United States would have to close in the next ten years.

In other words, higher ed gets disrupted. And, then, COVID just raised the stakes on that disruption. Seemed like an appropriate time to write this post.

In one of my first Wisdom Well posts, I wrote about Peter Drucker’s famous question, “What Business Are You In?” and outlined how one could turn that into a repeating question that helps you discover your essence. Call it your own personal archeological dig. In fact, this question helped Joie de Vivre realize it was in the “identity refreshment” business, and then, later on, helped Airbnb discover it was in the “belong anywhere” business.

It is time for colleges and universities to go through this same exercise. I’ve spent the past few months working on a paper with Canadian academic and MEA alum Ingo Rauth called “The Emergence of Long Life Learning.” You’ll read more about this soon, but it brought me face-to-face with the fact that most schools of higher education haven’t distilled down their essence.

There are a few universities that are innovating to circumvent their disruption and destruction. Many of these schools have come to the conclusion that universities should be open for the full lifecycle of an adult. It makes sense. Why is it that the vast majority of adults who get to experience the “ivory tower” are 25 years old or younger?

I will close this post by quoting the vision of Washington University in St. Louis. This comes from an article in The Gerontologist magazine from December 2019 entitled, “Making the Case for Age-Diverse Universities:”

“The vision of the Washington University for Life initiative is threefold: Washington University will engage and educate people of all ages; age diversity will be a valued feature of our campus and our culture; and later life will be viewed as a time of active engagement, learning, and purpose as opposed to current perceptions of stepping back and diminishing relevance. For the longer term, aims of the initiative include the following: (a) create opportunities for students, faculty, staff, and alumni to engage in education throughout the life course; (b) build skills among faculty, staff, and students to work in multigenerational environments; (c) establish programs that facilitate transitions between jobs and into retirement; (d) develop intergenerational strategies to promote entrepreneurship and innovation for an aging society; and (e) produce knowledge on multigenerational education and educational pathways for longer life course.”

If you’ve been to MEA or believe in the value of “long life learning,” you probably read that and said, “Of course!” But, higher education, as an industry, is slow to move and, thus, Clayton Christensen’s prediction may be accurate. On the other side of that disruption, will be a new generation of “edupreneurs” who will likely acquire these gorgeous campuses and distill down their essence to the idea that they’re in the business of helping create insight for their students at every single life stage.

Are you one of those edupreneurs?

For those who want to explore this further, you might want to seek out the Hechinger Report published this year which shows that half of U.S. colleges and universities had less students in 2019 than in 2009.

Go deeper with a workshop, in person or online.

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