The Limitations of the “Comprehensive” University

There is a prevalent sense among academics that a university is meant to be “comprehensive” i.e. provide a full range of programs and degrees at the undergraduate and graduate level. In fact, the dictionary definition of a university is a collection of schools or colleges. However, in the U.S. the terms “college” and “university” are used in different ways. Some would say that colleges only offer undergraduate degrees, while universities also have graduate programs, but that is not always the case. Dartmouth College, for example, offers a full slate of graduate and professional programs. Community colleges traditionally offer two year degrees and vocational training, but now often offer bachelors and even masters degrees.

This terminology reflects societal confusion about the role of universities. Should they all necessarily be offering a full slate of programs? After all, Harvard famously started as a school to train young men for the ministry, leading William & Mary to claim to be the first “real” university in the U.S. However, both were centered on liberal arts education. Land grant universities, which include many of our largest and most diverse public institutions, were tasked with teaching military, agricultural, and mechanical arts. Although they were not excluded from offering other programs, they were not required or expected to.

We can resolve this terminological and philosophical confusion by adopting the position that I have taken in this series of posts – that higher education is an industry, and that institutions of higher education are in competition for a scarce number of students. There are other ways of viewing a university to be sure, and as a professor I am never comfortable with considering my students to be “customers.” Nonetheless, without restating the obvious, most universities are dependent on tuition dollars to survive, so they do need to attract students.

Viewing higher ed as an industry is liberating for schools, because they don’t have to be all things to all people, and they don’t have to offer programs that are outside of their mission, competencies, and capabilities. Recall the Porter Strategic Positioning model from the last post:

In that post, I addressed the x-axis and suggested that differentiation was usually a far more attractive path to competitive advantage than cost for most private colleges and universities. In this post, I am addressing the y-axis and suggesting that narrow market segments are far preferable than broad for most private schools, particularly smaller ones.

The standard argument against this line of reasoning is that every student is increasing marginal revenue, so schools should try to attract as many qualified ones as possible. However, this is not always the case. Maintaining entire programs for a limited number of students is very expensive, particularly if there are a group of tenured faculty teaching very small sections term after term.

Is this a coded way of saying I want to get rid of the liberal arts, and have all universities shift resources from Arts & Sciences to Business & Technology like Quinnipiac? Not at all. Many colleges and universities have created a successful niche around the liberal arts. Take Holy Cross. 3000 students. All undergraduate. No professional or pre-professional programs (OK, they have Accounting and Computer Science, but still…). No continuing ed. No online programs. Yet enrollments are good, and their financial situation seems sound. What gives? They are small and tuition dependent (apprx. 80% revenues). Like other Jesuit institutions that have been struggling, it is certainly a very selective college, but it’s not an Ivy equivalent. Prestige is only part of the picture. They know who they are and what they do well. Their mission is to be a Jesuit liberal arts college serving the Catholic community.

Compare Holy Cross to Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. 2000 students, both undergraduate and graduate. Only professional programs. A robust set of online and continuing ed programs. It’s also doing well. So well that The Atlantic recently called it “the ideal college.” Again, I suggest that their success rests in their focus on what they are good at. In Champlain’s case, they strive to provide “radically pragmatic education.” From their mission statement: Champlain College endeavors to be a leader in educating today’s students to become skilled practitioners, effective professionals and engaged global citizens.

What unites Holy Cross with Champlain College is focus. They are not “comprehensive universities” in any sense of the term. They both have only around 30 undergraduate programs. They do not claim to be all things to all people. I can’t claim to have any in depth knowledge of either school’s operations, but it seems to me that their focus is one of their strengths. There are many large public and private universities that can succeed as broad differentiators or low-cost leaders, but focused differentiation is the right path for most small private schools.

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One Response to The Limitations of the “Comprehensive” University

  1. Bryan Holmes says:

    The demand constraints on the consumer for higher education are different, meaning that even if a university is specialized, the market penetration is difficult to broach. People shop for name, not necessarily for the educational value they are receiving.

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