Demand for traditional college experiences, in other words, is unlikely to be infinitely inelastic no matter how desirable. Indeed, many small, rural liberal arts colleges are already on the precipice of closing, as their business model is fundamentally unsustainable.

Following that, there is likely a limit to the number of colleges that can win at serving students who want these experiences. Already today, only a minority of college students live on campus and are enrolled full time. That number will likely shrink in the years ahead given changing demographics that will result in fewer traditional college-aged students.

An additional challenge is that although many colleges probably think they are serving students desiring this experience, they are in many cases likely serving great numbers of students who are attending college to fulfill someone else’s expectations of them. It is important for institutions to be realistic about the circumstances in which their students actually are, not where they might wish they were.

Given the overbuilt nature of many institutions’ physical plants, spending on fancy features like lazy rivers may be wise in the short term but dangerous in the longer run.

Lazy rivers might have a place on campus, but they might still be lazy

A more difficult question for schools looking to serve students who want the fancy amenities and the classic college experience might be this: how can schools offer unexpected experiences that surprise and delight students who are coming for the classic college experience in ways that are more differentiated, less costly, and more creative than simply continuing the facility arms race in higher education?

The answer may not be obvious, but for places of higher learning, they should be up for the intellectual challenge as though the future of their institutions depends on the answer. Because it just might.

[Editor’s note: This post originally appeared online on the Christensen Institute’s blog, and is reposted here with permission.] 

About the Author:

Michael B. Horn is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.

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