One of the persistent developments of the past half century has been the expansion of self-service options by organizations. Financial institutions, airlines, hotels, gas stations, grocery stores, and many other organizations have replaced employees and passed work to customers. People accepted the change to self-service because it offered more convenience (e.g., booking your air ticket online anytime) and in some instances lower costs and a better customer experience. Businesses leveraged new technologies to accomplish simultaneous cost savings and customer satisfaction.
Higher education has faced many of the same cost pressures as other industries in recent years. While universities have adopted technology to enhance the student experience and replaced some tenure stream faculty with contract or adjunct faculty, they have not widely embraced self-service lanes in higher education. This is a mistake for three reasons.
First, students are increasingly coming to college with exposure to significant use of technology in high school and life. Our students have experienced dramatic changes in the way education is provided, including instances where lectures are online and class time is devoted to application and discussion. Universities can only ignore student preferences for so long. Witness changes in dorm life and college food from the 1950s to today. Schools that ignore student preferences may attract fewer students (or less qualified students). Although faculty members enjoy debating the idea of whether or not students are customers, the educational system has already told them they are.
Second, cost pressures will continue to destabilize higher education, especially public universities. Those pressures will lead to a continuation of the very trend decried by higher education unions and some faculty – namely, the general substitution of tenure stream faculty with adjuncts or others. Cost concerns will lead to other changes. For example, some schools have chosen to enroll international students in increasing numbers – because those students pay the most tuition. This is a short term solution at best because there is no escape from the cost problem, especially given the price of college tuition relative to median family income in the U.S. Even international students will resist tuition levels that exceed some point – economics teaches us that demand curves are downward sloping.
Third, government regulations will increasingly allow students to take alternate routes to their degree. For example, articulation agreements with community colleges require many public universities to accept students who complete successfully a certain program of study or accept for transfer credit courses that have been deemed equivalent to ones universities offer. This gives students a lower cost route to a college degree and many more are taking that path to save money. It will continue to lead students to substitute community college and approved online courses for traditional university courses.
Educators are constantly trying to ensure that students receive a high quality education – one that prepares them for employment and successful citizenship. Some resistance to online education stems from concerns that it does not adequately prepare the typical student for future opportunities. Rather than view online education so broadly, it is appropriate to look at it as a college self-service lane. Like all self-service lanes, it is not ideal for everyone. And it is not ideal in every situation. But a college education requires individual studying and learning, which means that the educational process contains some inherent self-service aspects.
It is time for universities to adopt self-service lanes to give students the flexibility they seek while reducing some costs. The approach has potential. For example, students currently need to invest in their education to be successful. They must study, produce papers and projects, and meet faculty expectations. They are on a path to self-service outcomes. The path could be structured to emphasize in-person lectures less and applications more. By making the lecture less central to education through online accessibility or blended approaches, in-class learning will become more intense. This by the way preserves a central faculty role, though it creates a very different college and learning environment. Faculty members become more like consultants – they facilitate learning by leading apprentices and showing how concepts and theories make a difference in the real world.
Although the expansion of self-service lanes may be frightening to faculty – because of the required changes needed and the time that must be invested – it will be impossible to stop the continuing drift of students to self-service approaches. For example, they use Wikipedia and other online information sources to answer their questions. This affects the faculty role in the same way that availability of databases on benefits, personnel policies, and organizational rules affected the jobs of human resource managers. To many students, professors are no longer the only (or most valuable) “source” of information. And this is not a bad outcome to the extent that it allows professors to spend more time facilitating interactions based on exposure to the basic information.
Universities focusing on online programs, especially for-profits, are increasingly positioned to take advantage of students’ preferences for self-service education. Because technology alone does not guarantee quality educational outcomes, there is time and room for professors at research universities to leverage online content. Indeed the challenge for professors is to embrace technology tools in ways that generate intense educational experiences for students.
Instead of assuming that a self-service lane in higher education is unequivocally bad, we should find ways to use technology to enhance educational outcomes. Self-service lanes could combine a cost advantage for students with elements of quality higher education that a research faculty would celebrate. The lanes must be designed to give students the skills we (and prospective employers) regularly advocate: for example, critical thinking; writing; platform skills, and the ability to work in teams. Our large in-person lecture-based professor-centered approach is less and less able to meet students’ expectations. Just as many people prefer to make their own airline reservations, bag their groceries, or stop at an ATM instead of a bank branch, many of our students desire self-service lanes.
Business schools are ideally equipped to develop the self-service market. We have already created a variety of programs for deliberately segmented markets. We leverage executive programs to generate revenue. We face more consumer viewpoints than other schools (judging by the sheer number of B-school rankings we face each year). While we are perfectly suited to test the new self-service waters, even business schools have moved reluctantly here. The main reason is that faculty must change what they do to leverage and enhance self-service lanes. Many of our top professors have not concluded that there is reason to make the adjustments. This will change. In particular, I am confident that B-school professors understand that you must accept the pressure of the market or be crushed by it.