Can this innovative theory save higher education?

“If you as a little boy want to kill a giant by making a better product for better profits to the giant’s best customers, the giant will squash you,” explained Christensen. “But if you come in at the bottom of the market and pick a fight where the giant isn’t motivated to fight you for customers and will flee rather than fight, that’s the winning mechanism.”

A mechanism that’s currently happening through for-profits, career and technical, and many online universities today—by targeting those education consumers, such as adult and remedial learners, these higher education models are thriving.

However, the reason why they’re displacing traditional four-year college and universities and not merely supplementing them is a relatively new development, said Christensen.

“If you look at businesses like McDonald’s and hotels, the disruptive theory doesn’t really apply, and that’s because the theory needs to have a technological component to it. Recently, the technologies enabling online learning for higher education, coupled with the changes to the economy, are driving the mechanism.”

In other words, accessible technology + shaky economy = perfect storm for traditional higher education.

“Online learning and its cousins provide a technology core, allowing those entities entering at the bottom of the market to take over the giants,” he continued. “The question now is: ‘Is there something that can’t be displaced within a traditional university’s value offering?’”

3 key strategies

“I’ll be honest,” said Christensen, “within 10 to 15 years, half of the universities around today will either be liquidated or in bankruptcy.”

However, Christensen outlined three ways traditional college and universities, like his own Harvard Business school, could survive into the future:

1. Focus on professors.

During his keynote, Christensen related a story about another talk given at a university. After his lecture, a university official pointed out people in the audience, as well as board members, who gave substantial funds to the university. They were all alumni.

Intrigued, Christensen asked these members why they donated, and without fail, each mentioned a professor that changed his/her life.

“It didn’t matter if they were now a mathematician or financial analyst,” he explained. “It wasn’t about what was taught, but how the professor inspired them. However, after further investigation into Harvard Business School’s own alumni, it seems that the same 10 to 12 professors were cited again and again—that’s less than 1 percent of faculty.”

Christensen’s recommendation for colleges when recruiting faculty is to focus less on their publishing capabilities and expert knowledge of material, and more on their ability to connect to others.

“I predict that those universities that in a decade from now will be in turmoil will only see themselves survive another day because of the resources provided by loyal alumni,” he said.

(Next page: Stategies 2-3)