Schubart: Compete or Collaborate

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(Host) Retired businessman, former VPR chair and commentator Bill
Schubart has volunteered since the age of 26 in the non-profit
sector. In this commentary, he imagines the collaborative
opportunities open to 26 Vermont’s colleges and universities in
America’s shrinking student marketplace.

(Schubart) Competition works pretty well in the business sector if it’s fair
and business plays by the rules. Competition in the non-profit arena
is a problem, as it puts enterprise value over mission.

Many are understandably confused by the
necessity for non-profits to show a profit to survive. The reason is
that the IRS distinguishes between the two sectors around purpose and
intent not profitability.

In spite of this, a good non-profit is
run like a business, although its purpose is not the enrichment of
owners and shareholders but delivering on the organizational mission
under which it was established. That mission may be social,
environmental, educational, religious, health-related, or cultural.

I am occasionally asked by Vermonters,
"Are our billion dollar medical center and our half-billion dollar
university non-profits in more than name? The legal answer is yes but
the honest answer can only be determined by looking at how well they
fulfill their non-profit mission. A significant factor is how much
they choose to compete or collaborate. In practice they usually do

Competition is fed by marketing
information rather than mission and, for years, colleges and
universities have been competing furiously for a declining number of
American students and the growing number of international ones.
Competition is now international with China building over 100
colleges modeled after Stamford.

I worry that the competitive
construction strategy at many colleges will, in fact, make them less
competitive in the future landscape of high education, as they
struggle to cover the costs of buildings and maintenance.

The future of higher ed will be marked
by three cost-reducing changes: lower campus residency, sophisticated
online courses backed up by one-on-one mentoring, and the addition of
an off-campus practicum or experiential learning opportunity. This
should mean make for a more focused and intense learning experience.
The practicum will weld together academic and real world learning,
the online component will replace costly and perpetually outdated
textbooks with digital libraries.

But this is not enough to make the
current higher ed institutions financially viable. Paradoxically, to
compete, they must look at collaboration. Imagine if 8-10 of
Vermont’s 26 colleges combined forces, say, in food systems, each
offering a certificate in what they do best. It would include a brief
residency, augmented with a farm or facility-based internship.
Graduates would compile certificates towards a Vermont-branded
undergraduate degree in food systems.

College and post-graduate enrollments
are declining except at the Tiffany colleges. Students the world over
are looking for affordable learning opportunities that meld academics
and experience and don’t burden them with debt. It’s time to try
something different. Vermont has the opportunity to deliver on both
by building on the assets of many or all of its 26 colleges and

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