Higher Ed’s Disruption Linked to Movies and Television Industries

Former Chronicle of Higher Education Editor-in-Chief, Jeff Selingo, is a writer, author, teacher, and a clever out-of-the-box thinker. When I read his Next newsletter yesterday (if you don’t subscribe to it, you can subscribe for free here, he introduced the disruption of traditional higher ed topic by mentioning previous comparisons to technology-induced disruptions of other industries like newspapers, publishing, and music. One of those comparisons that I believe makes a well-reasoned argument supporting traditional higher ed’s similar demise is Arthur Levine’s and Scott Van Pelt’s recent book, The Great Upheaval. In their ”Looking Sideways” analysis, Levine and Van Pelt focus on three knowledge industries (music, motion picture, and newspaper that had to change based on technology. They argue that the type of change will emphasize “the rise of anytime, anyplace, consumer-driven content and source agnostic, unbundled, personalized education paid for by subscription.”

Mr. Selingo notes that his thinking about technology-disrupted industries that may provide helpful insights to higher education leaders trying to avoid a similar fate has been influenced by the television and movie industry. An interview of former Disney CEO Bob Iger by Kara Swisher at the Code Conference triggered several observations. Specifically, Iger’s comments about his important Intellectual Property (IP) acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, and Lucas Film versus much smaller technology-related acquisitions triggered one of Mr. Selingo’s ideas – What is the IP of a college or university? Selingo continues to dissect his own thinking and asks “is the IP the professors? Is it the curriculum? Is it the residential experience? Or is it some combination of those and more?”

My response to Mr. Selingo is that the IP of a college or a university is their brand. Their brand can encompass their reputation, their campus, their curriculum, their selectivity, their alumni, the connections that students make with other students, and the connections that students make with professors. Unfortunately, most of these items that I list under brand are not a differentiating factor at non-elite colleges and universities.

Jeff Selingo also poses the question that “as more students — traditional age, adults, lifelong learners – take more online courses, do the established players have an advantage in attracting them?” I believe the answer to that is complex but for a number of reasons that I recently wrote about in Expanding Enrollment in Online Programs and Courses at a Traditional Institution, I think it’s much more work than they realize if they’re recruiting non-traditional students for the first time.

In an indirect way, Mr. Selingo and I seem to be aligned. He says that “like Disney, higher ed can’t just focus on the content IP. It must also focus on distribution.” I believe that there is very little unique content IP in higher ed anymore. Thanks to Google’s amazing search engine (developed by two Stanford PhD students looking for a way to index their references) and the rapid expansion and availability of Open Educational Resources (OER), most information on the web is available to everyone. The curation has value, but in general education courses, I would argue the curation has less value than the instruction.

I agree with Mr. Selingo that higher ed must focus on distribution. He writes that two emerging distribution channels in higher ed are employers and online. Yes, online is emerging, not because it’s new but because everyone just figured it out during the pandemic that it might be important. In the adult student market, he gives the nod to some of the biggest online players (and I’ll give the nod to my former institution, APUS, who has been a long-time leader in the online adult student market as well as WGU, ASU, and SNHU who he cites). Appended below is a McKinsey exhibit that shows the concentration of market share among the existing online providers. These are 2018 numbers and are likely lower than now. I also note that these numbers are FTE numbers and the actual numbers of students served are much higher (particularly if your FTE ratio is .5 because of the high percentage of part-time students served).

the concentration of market share among the existing online providers

Mr. Selingo spends less time discussing the employer channel other than to mention the largest third-party providers that are managing tuition benefit programs for employers. This is a much more complicated area to build tight relationships with companies and in many cases, some of the tightest relationships come with the workforce development programs between local employers and community colleges.

I think the employer distribution channel is wide open. At the same time, colleges with high brand value may be able to take advantage of their brand value if they can demonstrate the agility to provide employers with “just-in-time” upskilling and reskilling courses and certificates. I’m not sure the online distribution channel is open for the reasons discussed above. I recently reviewed a book, Using ROI for Strategic Planning of Online Education that I believe could be helpful for institutions considering expanding their online offerings. The McKinsey article from which I sourced the graphic is insightful as well.

Kudos to Jeff Selingo for his thoughts correlating the television and movie industries’ disruptions with higher ed’s disruption. Let’s hope a lightbulb finally goes off at colleges experiencing enrollment declines with no IP and no online or employer distribution channels.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence