Meeting Customer Demands

There are more than 14 million students enrolled in the nation's colleges and universities, and this number could increase substantially when electronic access is offered. But among the current 14 million are a group of about 5 million that now want, and probably will continue to want, the traditional "collegiate" experience. This pool could swell somewhat as the echo of the baby-boom surges through our public schools and into college or university. But the important point is that a substantial number of students probably will continue to want a campus-based, undergraduate, graduate, or professional school educational experience. Some portion of the remaining 9 million is potentially the market for electronically delivered instruction.

Virginia's share of the national enrollments is significant, for we have the 11th largest system of higher education in the United States. About 350,000 students are enrolled in our colleges and universities, and of them about 150,000 probably will continue to want a traditional college experience. These students will go to institutions that are distinctive in some way: for their reputations, location, special curricula and purposes, physical beauty, their athletic prowess, or some other extraneous factor. Many institutions already have developed their special market "niches": Harvard, Notre Dame, and the national military academies, for instance. Others will develop them; those that can't will have an opportunity to transform themselves into different kinds of colleges and universities than we know today.

As this shake-out occurs, it will be important to remember that while advanced communications technology connects us regardless of space and time (it is "asynchronous"), every person linked into the World-Wide Web is nonetheless somewhere -- in some particular place -- at some time. We are physical beings, and we form families, groups, and communities with other proximate human beings.

In Democracy's Discontent (Cambridge, 1996), Harvard government professor Michael J. Sandel wrote that:

The global media and markets that shape our lives beckon us to a world beyond boundaries and belonging. But the civic resources we need to master these forces . . . are still to be found in the places and stories, memories and meaning, incidents and identities, that situate us in the world and give our lives their moral particularity (p. 349).

One of the less-noted roles of many colleges and universities is to enrich the quality of life in the communities in which they are physically located. This role will become increasingly important as instruction becomes widely available over electronic networks. One service the British Open University or a national cablevision company cannot offer residents of Hampton Roads or Southside is physical presence -- a place. Attractive though electronic course and program offerings may be, there is an important and rewarding role for the local college or university that is sufficiently flexible and imaginative to seize it.

I envision a time when large communications networks offer much of the instruction in higher education. They will contract with outstanding faculty from all over the nation, and even the world, to offer the instruction, and they will have computer and communications experts to help them design their presentations. The networks will confer degrees and provide "credit banks" in which students can accumulate academic credits earned in a variety of settings, irrespective of place or time. (These "credit banks" may replace much of what we now call "accreditation." A network will bank credits only from those educational entities that meet its standards.) The Western Governors' University may be the prototype of this new kind of networked college.

The mass marketers will not serve their clients exclusively by electronic delivery systems, although electronic delivery is a distinctive characteristic of what is being developed. Another characteristic, one that is not possessed by most higher education institutions today, is rapid response time. The new marketers will discern a customer need, design and deliver a program to meet it, and close the program down when the need has been met -- all with a cycle time far faster than the present curriculum development and review procedures of higher education.

Millions of students will receive advanced education using the networks: degrees, skill upgrading, avocational development -- most of which colleges and universities today regard as in their domain. The 350,000 Virginia enrollments, and the 14 million national, might increase far beyond what normal population growth would dictate, simply because opportunities for advanced learning will be so much more accessible. There will be programs custom designed to fit student needs, prior experiences, and schedules.

This is not as far-fetched as it may seem at first glance. Major mass-market retailers have begun to offer custom-made shoes and clothing, using computer pattern-cutting and highly automated manufacturing processes. If Levi-Strauss can produce a custom-made pair of blue jeans at about the same cost as the ones off the shelf, there is no reason at all why entrepreneurial vendors of higher education cannot do the same thing with an MBA. Now almost all the products of state-supported higher education are "off the shelf"; these products will fare poorly in the markets that are developing.

Teaching, Learning, and Research

Twenty Years of Higher Education in Virginia