A recent column I wrote about the growing legitimacy of online education, particularly for graduate degrees, had some readers questioning whether college campuses would follow the demise of big box retailers, such as Blockbuster or Borders. One day, instead of passing by empty Circuit City stores that now litter our landscape, might we see abandoned college campuses?
Online education is surely putting stress on traditional residential colleges, but it is unlikely to put many of them out of business. The physical location of a college campus might become even more important in the future, a place where students blend online learning with outside-the-classroom work.
The reason why campuses will survive can be found in the lessons of retail shopping during the past two decades.
In the late 1990s, as the World Wide Web exploded into a global phenomenon, the popular sentiment on Wall Street was that online commerce would replace the physical world in the decade ahead. New companies sprouted up almost overnight that allowed us to buy goods and services — everything from groceries to videos to pet supplies — from the comfort of our own homes.
Company valuations skyrocketed, as everyone seemed to think that big-box stores and mom-and-pop shops were going to be wiped out by the virtual world. Of course, that didn’t happen at the scale that was predicted, and the dot-com bubble burst in 2001.
Some online retailers survived the downturn. The biggest was Amazon. When Jeff Bezos founded the company in 1994, many thought he should have started by selling clothing. After all, consumers already bought clothes through mail-order catalogs. But Bezos — who owns The Washington Post — reasoned that there was still a physical aspect to selling clothes, a “touch and feel” that was difficult to convey online. So he started with books, not exactly a hot seller at the time: they were the 25th most popular product category sold through catalogs.
But as David Bell noted in his book, Location Is (Still) Everything, about selling and shopping in the digital era, books were a perfect fit for the Internet. “There is nothing about a book that you really need to touch and feel,” Bell wrote. “If you know the price, the author, what it’s about, and perhaps a bit of information from reviews, then you’re good to go.”
Fast-forward to 2001. Apple Computer was in the midst of a comeback, thanks mostly to iTunes and the iPod. But rather than beef up its existing online presence as Amazon did, Apple did exactly the opposite: it built a physical store, and then a chain of them.
Apple Stores offered a customer experience unlike that of other electronic chains such as Best Buy. It used the stores to curate its products rather than have the usual aisles and aisles of boxes. And Apple lent a cachet to its brand name by carefully selecting a limited number of retail locations, rather than opening in every market the way Target or Walmart does.
As with brick-and-mortar retailers in the late 1990s, a decade later colleges and universities faced similar predictions about the imminent demise of their vast residential campuses. The number of students enrolled in at least one online course skyrocketed from 1.6 million in 2002 to more than 6 million a decade later. But hundreds of colleges have not gone out of business as a result.
That doesn’t mean some won’t fail in the future, but it’s likely that before some do they will try to shift the relationship students have to the physical campus. In this way, colleges will take a cue from the Apple Store and present the best experiences they can offer on physical campuses and then move the rest online. In other words, college will become a blended experience for many students, in that it will be neither fully in person nor all online.
In this new world, a college’s physical location will matter even more than it does today, as internships, research projects, and other types of experiential learning for students will be nearly impossible to replicate online.
This blended strategy is exactly what brick-and-mortar retailers have followed in recent years, adopting what’s called an “omni-channel” approach for consumers who shop in a mix of retail stores, online, and on their mobile phones. Such an approach allows retailers to focus on what’s most important in their physical locations.
Author David Bell, who is also a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, believes that much the same thing could happen in higher education. He can imagine a future university where the best content is presented online, and then students go to a physical campus for the immersive experiences. That is the premise behind the Minerva Project, a for-profit venture in San Francisco that aims to build a name-brand, elite, liberal-arts-focused university with students taking courses online and living their undergraduate years in different cities around the world.
Under this scenario for what the future of higher education might look like, college campuses probably won’t need to have as many buildings or residence halls as they do today, but they certainly won’t end up surrounded by chain-link fences like so many shuttered stores in abandoned strip malls.