Will Residential College Share the Print Media's Fate?

An Augustana trustee who spent his career in the newspaper industry has been warning me for some time that higher education is facing circumstances eerily familiar to those of the print media. I've politely listened, but his warnings didn't really sink in until Jeff Bezos purchased The Washington Post for $250 million. As I've read and listened to all sorts of analysis of the sale and state of The Washington Post, it's impossible to ignore the comparisons to what higher education faces today.

Here are problems often associated with print media and challenges we've heard widely discussed in relation to the sale of The Washington Post:

• The newsroom feels like what they do should not and cannot be "audience-driven."
• Management is worried about profits and the balance sheet; the newsroom is not.
• Customers/subscribers are getting their news elsewhere.
• Action to respond to clear trends has been too slow.
• Prices continue to increase (offset by select discounting) in face of stagnant if not declining readership, overstating their value proposition.
• Online/internet distribution was viewed as a substitute distribution channel for print instead of as a new method to bring innovative products to market.
• Cultural resistance to innovation is systematic.
• Competitors are self-defined, so the real competition is overlooked and underestimated.

Bezos must understand these and have some ideas about how to address them. At least that's what I'm hoping as a reader of his newspaper.

Let's be honest about this comparison. Reading the list above does not require one to stretch very far to identify similar players, circumstances, scenarios and challenges facing higher education. While there are a number of areas that can overlap, the ones that may present real danger to higher education are:

• Customers/subscribers getting their fix elsewhere
• Continually increasing prices (offset by select discounting) in the face of stagnant if not declining readership, overstating the value proposition
• Online/internet distribution as a substitution
• Self-defined competitors

These same conditions threaten higher education, but might be better described in the following terms.

Free knowledge acquisition threatens what we do: As the acquisition of knowledge (or at least learning "how to") becomes increasingly accessible for free, the purpose of college is questioned at a similar rate. There is a real possibility that students will begin to get their fix elsewhere -- for free.

Costs cannot continue to increase, even with discounts: Colleges cannot continue to raise prices only to offer more in financial aid. This is the amazing conundrum of higher education. We raise prices and then tell everyone that financial aid is the single largest line item in the budget. The business model is broken and irreparable in its current state.

Colleges must use technology to innovate and improve, not replace or substitute: Many colleges continue to struggle to figure out what to do with online learning. Online learning is not an either/or proposition. It has to be a both/and, and we've got to figure it out soon.

Colleges must be realistic about competition: Defining our competition according to our own terms limits creativity and innovation, because we wait to do something only when our perceived competitor does the same thing. Our competition is no longer the college down the street; it's any set of places, organizations and resources that play a role in the acquisition of knowledge.

Many faculty members, administrators and board members understand these threats, but too many are like the Graham family: they are at a loss for what to do. They continue to wait for an example, or hope for the best.

I find myself wondering if Bezos will provide the example and will be the hope? Does he know something we don't? Does he see something we can't? Does he have a solution that's eluded us in addressing what are very comparable threats? I'll be watching and remain hopeful.

I expect Bezos will apply many of the principles he's used at Amazon and The Washington Post will emerge as a customer-focused entity that knows more about its readers than its readers know about themselves. He will learn what he can from the data and apply it to make The Washington Post successful and innovative. I think Bezos will focus on improving the experience for readers, first and foremost.

In higher education, it may be this last area -- the experience -- that most deserves our attention. We should be asking ourselves: What is it about the college experience that we can highlight that will assure our relevance, value and place for many years to come? In an era of free knowledge, unwillingness and inability to pay our cost, resistance to innovation and new competitors, the experience is what we have left.

Historically, we've taken for granted that prospective students know and value that experience. This may have been a mistake the print media made when they thought their subscribers would always want the feel of newsprint on their fingertips.

To thrive, we must be more intentional about the college experience. Great content was not enough to enable The Washington Post to thrive and content alone will not be enough for colleges either. We must be more direct in describing the purpose of a college education that is connected to, and also extends from, our campus. We must be more willing to identify certain learning experiences that can only be acquired on our physical campuses or within programs that we sponsor exclusively. We cannot continue to devalue the experience through deeper discounts. And we need a far more compelling worth claim for the cost of what we provide our students, and the value of how we prepare our graduates.

W. Kent Barnds loves reading the newspaper. A subscriber to several newspapers, he's a fan of both print and online news. He is also a passionate advocate for residential liberal arts colleges and a graduate of Gettysburg College. He has spent the last 20 years working in higher education. He currently serves as executive vice president and vice president of enrollment, communication and planning at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill.