The Future of Higher Education is in the Blue Ocean

I have spent much of my career at Northwestern Michigan College thinking about blue oceans. Not just for our work in water, for which we are recognized experts both here and abroad, but the blue ocean business strategy that leads organizations to find new marketplaces and create new demand.

With this strategy, consider a school of sharks living in an area of the ocean with a declining food supply. None of the sharks leave. As they attempt to capture their limited number of prey, the ocean begins to turn red. Eventually there is not enough food for any of them to be nourished. A few swim to a new blue ocean area to find food and are sustained. Where do you want to be? In a blue or red ocean? This should be the strategy for all leaders in higher education today. Our world and our industry are undergoing an incredible period of transformation and in order to survive, and to prepare our learners for the future, we must explore, innovate and create.

NMC has been a leader since its beginning when the members of this community saw a need to prepare our citizens for a new post-World War II society, so they created this institution as the first true community college in the state. For most of its history, just like many other colleges, we have been successful. We served the residents of this region very well and helped generations of learners improve their lives, and the lives of their families. But like most higher education institutions, we largely operated within a defined geography. We are now living in an increasingly connected world and a VUCA environment; one that is volatile, uncertain, ambiguous and complex. It is changing faster than ever, and it is not going back to the way it was.

Since our peak enrollment during the Great Recession, NMC has seen a nearly 30% decline in its enrollment, mostly in the 21+ age group. We are not alone. The state’s 28 community colleges have seen an average decline in student headcount of 32% and a decline in contact hours of 36%. It’s true that our industry is traditionally counter-cyclical to the economy, but there are more forces at work here. There are 2.8 million people in our state ages 25-64 who have at least a high school diploma, but no college credential.

Michigan also has an aging population and more institutions of higher education than it will be able to sustain. There are currently 93 institutions of higher education in the state and 116,000 high school seniors. Just four years from now, the number of high school seniors begins a decade-long drop to 85,000. There are still more forces at work here. The very nature of higher education is changing. We must look for ways to differentiate ourselves and meet our customers’ needs. If all colleges are just doing the same thing, we turn into a commodity and the only ones who win a commodity-based system are huge players.

This is where NMC is and has been ahead of its peers. We have worked to build a college culture and systems that take us beyond a red ocean strategy where other colleges compete for the same, now dwindling, traditional student population. There are too many colleges and there will be too few traditional students for all institutions to succeed in Michigan in the long run. We at NMC have been exploring new programs and building unique market advantages in the blue ocean. This includes professional training in key program areas like marine technology, drones, aviation and more. Not only do these programs build on existing expertise, but they bring in new revenue streams that will support the critical work to educate learners in more traditional areas. 

What we offer our learners, or customers, is important but it’s also important how we offer it. We are not a two-year college. We are not a four-year college. We are more than both of those things. We need to be connected to learners their whole lives. Traditional degree paths are still necessary, but they’re not sufficient. We are working to develop more industry certifications and stackable credentials to help our students get ahead. Does the traditional academic calendar, or semesters, fit people’s lifestyles anymore? If not, we must adjust our timeframes. Even how we use our buildings must change as our desires in how we deliver learning changes. And we will need help. We cannot afford all of the resources our learners need so we need to continue to form partnerships through a networked workforce. It will become increasingly important for our success in the future.

If we want to continue to reach and serve our learners, we have to do something different. We need to be able to offer a product our customers want to buy. The future of higher education lies in the blue ocean. I am proud to have been steering our college there for nearly 20 years and am confident the systems we have developed will position us for success for many more decades to come. 

Tim Nelson is the president of Northwestern Michigan College.