Jennifer Delahunty on “Twinning”

Higher education enrollment veteran Jennifer Delahunty conducts a thought experiment envisioning “economy” versions of today’s luxury college brands.

The delivery of education, like all human enterprises, will and must evolve. But toward what direction?

During my time in higher education, thirty plus years, which is admittedly just a snapshot, I’ve seen many surprising mutations. First, there was the fast-growing appearance of the for-profit institution. (Who would have predicted the rise of the billion-dollar University of Phoenix? Education delivered like an ATM delivers cash—in buildings that look like branch offices of banks.) More recently, a tsunami of online learning opportunities has swept across the land. We are all aware of how this development is changing the face of higher education. Slowly but surely, we have begun to see students putting together their degrees from component parts, like a custom computer assembled in their bedrooms. A few courses from the community college, an internship, some online courses, and then wrapping it up in the “computer case” provided by the senior year at XYZ University. Who needs to buy a MacBook Air at full price when you can put together your own—and perhaps even more powerful—computer for half the cost?

Early on in my career at Kenyon, as we watched the net tuition revenue and financial aid trend lines crisscrossing, a trustee who was also a very successful entrepreneur suggested that Kenyon offer differential pricing for a Kenyon education. He suggested, for example, that students who wanted the standard experience would pay the higher cost and students who could stand, for example, not to participate in all elements of campus life, who could forego a typical residential experience and all the associated services, would pay a lesser price. A Camry on a Lexus chassis. The entire room of trustees looked at him as if he had temporarily lost his marbles. The idea was never discussed again. That was about a dozen years ago.

While I realize that the analogy between cars and education is at best tiresome and at worst foolish, I think we can take a quick peek at the car industry for a parallel “edupreneurial” idea. The auto industry calls this “twinning”—using the same component parts for two different cars. Is twinning on the educational horizon?

I recently learned that one of the most prominent private secondary schools in the Pacific Northwest is considering doing just that. Rumor has it the board has determined that in their market there were many people who wouldn’t or couldn’t pay the full cost for the on-campus experience, about $30,000 per year, but would pay half the cost for just the classes (intensive, taught by great faculty) in an urban campus setting. This forward-thinking school is reading the tealeaves and realizing that both their net revenue and their institutional reach could grow substantially with such a two-tiered program. Separating the experiences—one in a wooded suburb and the other in downtown office buildings—would help differentiate the experiences. Will the board take the leap? It remains to be seen, and I imagine they are addressing a myriad of complex questions. Should this school have the same name? Would transcripts be identical? Would this prestigious institution, which regularly enrolls graduates in the Ivies and other highly selective institutions, find their “Camry” grads getting the same scores and the same acceptances as the “Lexus” grads? And will families pay to be part of this experiment? It would be a wild experiment.

While some would see such a change in approach as a dilution of the brand, I actually believe it could be seen as brand enhancing—just as the Lexus division has enhanced the Toyota brand. But as any student of the marketplace knows, a “cheaper” version can eat the luxury version alive. Think of Target, which has outlived its parent company, Dayton’s (which was absorbed by Marshall Field’s, which itself eventually went out of business). To extend that analogy to envision a luxury version and an economy version of higher education is somewhat frightening; the economy version would eliminate the original, luxury brand.

One can only take analogies of this type so far; education is neither a widget nor a retailer. Let’s just note that society’s appetite for more educational choices and modes of delivery seems, at least at this point in time, to be ravenous. And a lower-cost version of a luxury brand seems like a natural, perhaps even inevitable, step in the evolution of education—especially as we watch the dwindling numbers of those who can pay most or all of the cost.