Press "Enter" to skip to content

Competition takes aim at the bottom line

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the inability of community college administrators to understand or appreciate the ungentle art of competition. I wrote about that in the context of the Health and Fitness Center. Generally, the publicly funded Health and Fitness Center has a major advantage over businesses that lack access to tax dollars.

That puts the taxpayer at a huge disadvantage, because community college administrators don’t know when to call it quits. Simply put, a for-profit business that isn’t thriving closes its doors. A taxpayer-funded business that isn’t thriving can continue failing for years, doing the same failish things ad nauseam. The ongoing taxpayer funding blocks the signal that for-profit businesses use to measure their health: monetary losses.

A for-profit business can’t accumulate losses forever. A taxpayer-financed business merely looks at financial losses as “interesting” or “unexpected.” Public administrators always “hope for better days” while doing little to stanch the bleeding.

This inability to compete has other implications that go beyond mismanaging the community college’s side hustle. Survival implications, that is.

As it turns out, higher education is not immune to competition. Institutions have always competed for students, but there were enough students to go around. According to US Department of Education data, 96 schools or campuses closed in 1986 – the first year it tracked closures. Closures increased steadily until 1990, when the department registered 683. Since then, school/campus closures have increased, peaking at 1,158 in 2016. Although the number of closures is at its lowest point since 1988, competition for students is heating up.

On-demand education fuels competition

Competition is also coming from a variety of places. New providers are entering the market. That’s not to say there’s a mad rush to open new schools. The number of post-secondary schools has declined steadily since 2012. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are about 4,000 post-secondary schools in the US. About 40% of those are public two- or four-year schools. But that’s not where the pressure is coming from.

People are increasingly choosing competency-based education that doesn’t necessarily result in a traditional degree. These content providers (it’s hard to call them anything else) offer what people want: rapid, on-demand, low-cost education.

At the same time, for-profit education providers have moved into the vocational/occupational space that community colleges have all but abandoned. Enrollment in for-profit schools is rising. Nearly 12,000 people in Michigan are enrolled in for-profit post-secondary schools right now. Disproportionately, these students are low-income, minorities and/or female.

If you cannot understand why someone would choose the most expensive, least complete education option from an unaccredited provider, please re-read the first three paragraphs of this post.

Higher education is experiencing a sea change, and declining community college enrollments indicate that their administrators are unprepared to compete. Prospective students don’t recognize community colleges as viable options. For-profit institutions aim to tap into the availability of federal funding for students. Students want more self-directed, on-demand educational options. For-profit enrollment figures suggest that these institutions have figured out how to make that happen. And low-cost education providers are squarely in their sights.

Our multi-billion dollar investment hangs in the balance

So, the problem with not having figured out the competition thing extends beyond losing millions of dollars on side hustles. The competition has turned its sights to the community college’s core business. Our highly compensated, generously staffed community college administration must figure out how to survive life-or-death competition. Until they do, they will jeopardize our multi-billion dollar community investment in education.

We do not have unlimited time for our community college administration to observe the “interesting” and “unexpected” effects of competition. The Trustees must demand the development of effective, evolutionary strategies to retain and increase enrollment. They must also set deadlines and act if those strategies do not materialize. It is time for the Trustees to exercise the oversight they have eschewed for far too long. They cannot continue to accept failing strategies from an administration that has brought little to the table for a decade.

Photo Credit: Phae , via Flickr