Nasim Taleb has written an interesting book called Antifragile. Taleb talks about how, through embracing risk, nature has a way of applying stress to that risk. This, in turn, allows an entity to either fail or succeed under that stress and pressure. The stress related to embracing risk is what makes our society strong; as an illustration, did you know a regularly-stressed femur actually becomes stronger over time? In fact, they are known to become even stronger than concrete.
Some businesses–or people–thrive when there is upheaval by embracing uncertainty and benefiting from it. These folks are known as antifragile. Others who crave the status quo and safety try to control uncertainty rather than embrace it. These are the risk-adverse folks who, according to Taleb, ride the backs of those who strengthen themselves through embracing risk. They are fragile. As an entrepreneur, I’d characterize these types of people as a waste of space.
And so it goes with higher education. There are many in the sector who are embracing the status quo, terrified of altered job descriptions or taking their schools in new directions; they are not embracing uncertainty, they’re not giving uncertainty a big hug. (Of note: vendors serving Higher Ed also tend to fall into these same two categories.)
So, we know there are those who try to corral and control external elements and those that embrace the unknown. The anti-fragiles manage the uncertainty by overseeing a series of controlled trial-and-error experiments and understand that externals are “always” out there in the world, constantly changing. The fragiles try to reverse risk by attempting to corral everything; this is rather insane. It might be better to embrace reality as it flies through the door, make it a nice cup of tea, and deal with it.
At Enrollment Resources we do a great job of mitigating risk by taking our clients through a series of controlled trial-and-error mini experiments. Rather than running away from uncertainty, we embrace it and use the energy of these external factors present for the benefit of the schools we serve.
Here’s an example, or more accurately, a question to ponder. Through years past, Community Colleges and Corporate Proprietary Schools have built huge, physical footprints designed to service a sizable age group; the children of Boomers.
How things have changed? We have the external change of the new demographics.
Schools now get to market to the children of Generation X, a relatively tiny cohort compared to the numerous spawn of Boomers that fueled Higher Ed expansion for a good 15-20 years. What do schools do when their market shrinks so significantly?
Option A: Embrace this fact, adjust and subsequently strengthen. Anti-fragile.
Option B: Try and hang onto antiquated facts, living with a foot stuck in yesterday. Try to protect an infrastructure that has no hope of succeeding under the current demographic conditions. Fragile.
Geo targeting: How the maturing of Distance Education has turned it on its ear
When marketing to the kids of Boomers, ground-based schools tried to squeeze maximum revenues by marketing to students living over an hour away from campus. For several decades, there were more prospective students than schools and now all that has been turned upside down. With the emerging sophistication and user experience of online offerings in recent years, all of a sudden students can now study at home instead of making nasty commutes every single day. Community Colleges and Proprietary Schools failing to embrace this external change find their conversion rates, expressed as a percentage of their lead flow, plummet for prospects living beyond a 30-minute commute, thus killing their program revenue. Dealing with an antiquated physical plant exacerbates the issue. That’s fragile. The few schools who have embraced this trend and offered blended learning programs actually “widened their geo-target” to become regional destination schools. Embracing this change has made these schools stronger. That’s antifragile.
Embracing change and working with it, rather than pushing it away presents an interesting notion on how a school can tighten up and thicken the tapestry that is effective higher education.