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Opinion: A college degree is two things: something you earn, and something you own

Colorado should cultivate this hybrid to reap maximum benefit from its higher-ed system.

Is Colorado higher education a product or a service?

Answer: Yes. Higher Ed in Colorado needs to be both, for the state to get the most out of its investment.

Abel A. Chávez

Any successful business, organization or institution carves out its place in the market partly by clearly identifying and embracing its source of competitive advantage and breadth of competitive scope. Business models and strategic actions that yield success may be unique depending on whether one offers a service or a product. Services do not exchange physical goods and are likely intangible. Products involve exchange of goods that are tangible or intangible.

The Cooperative Institutional Research Program Freshman Survey, an annual national study with more than 100,000 responding incoming freshman, points rather clearly to higher education as a product. The top three answers respondents across all baccalaureate institutions indicated as the “very important” reasons to go to college were: 1) to be able to get a better job; 2) to learn more about things that interest them; and 3) to get training for a specific career.

Similar responses are given by the fastest-growing demographic group: high school graduates of Latino descent. The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education reports that in the  preceding decade, Latino higher education enrollments increased in Colorado by 10%, across the U.S.  West by 11%, and nationwide by 7%. Over the next decade, these students are projected to increase their share of the student population by 5% in the West and by more than 15% across the country. Many are first in their families to pursue higher education. Undoubtedly, the Freshman Survey’s “very important” reasons are at the root of their conversations with parents about major and school choice.

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Partnering with learners to help them reach their “very important” goals does not happen without effort, and that’s where service comes into play. Learners require a mix of one-time and continuous services to help them navigate these complex institutions from beginning to completion.

For many learners, higher education presents a constant roller coaster of “how do  I?” How do I register, pay for school, or even know a degree will pave the way to my desired outcome? This is in addition to other needs, such as health and wellness, safety, and memorable campus experiences. It is clear that higher education also must be in the service provision business.

Consider the countless businesses around us that are product-based yet rely heavily on strong service —think restaurants, auto sales, or grocery stores. If the true priority of education providers is their learners, then an experimental approach rooted in continuous improvement, exceptional customer service, ongoing re-invention and innovation inside and  outside the classroom is imperative.

As we examine both the product and service of higher education, we must remove the decades-old barriers that limit access. We must increase affordability by lowering the time to completion and modernize inter-institutional partnerships. We must normalize the alignment of teaching practices to meet learners at their dynamic learning styles. And, we must strive to improve completion rates. States have recognized these needs and are acting, including in our own backyard.

Colorado’s Commision on Higher Education has set a goal that 66% of adults in Colorado possess a higher education credential by 2025. The perceived  value of a credential is integral to reaching that goal.

Colorado commissioned the 2021 Higher  Education Return on Investment Report that assessed questions pertaining to the value of a higher education credential — a.k.a the product. The short answer is that while it depends on the field of study, a higher education credential does pay dividends, sustaining many positive economic, social, and civic outcomes for the state and region.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Taking stock of programs is essential to  creating a robust menu of services to drive completion and the state’s return on investment. Programs offering middle and high school students career exploration encourage active learning beyond the classroom; making these programs available for all learners early could be powerful. Also, Lifelong Learning Accounts — portable, individual, employer-matched accounts dedicated to an employee’s continual workforce training — could bring sustained value to the region, proactively building a modern global workforce. The state can be a test bed to experiment with creative approaches.

A recent Gallup survey reported that nearly half — yes, 50% — of parents oppose their children enrolling in higher education immediately after high school. I am hopeful that genuinely listening to learners, coupled with creatively aligning our services toward a learner-centric model, will elevate our product to meet student expectations.

As you ponder this question, consider that higher education must pursue a hybrid model that effectively bundles and delivers value — both as a service and product. 


Abel A. Chávez is vice president for enrollment and student success at Western Colorado University in Gunnison.


The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggest writers or give feedback at opinion@coloradosun.com.


The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggested writers and more to opinion@coloradosun.com

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