In the field of economics, the term “competitive advantage” means you have the lowest opportunity cost of providing a good or service. Opportunity cost is simply defined as what you give up in order to complete an action.
Competitive advantage should have the same definition in the higher education world. For example, a top engineering school shouldn’t begin a new program in ancient Greek biblical interpretation, especially if the program already exists at a nearby institution. The competitive advantage of the engineering department is to produce high-quality engineers.
In my time in academia, I have experienced a necessary shift in administrators’ logic regarding programs: we can’t be everything to everyone, but we will be the best at what we’re able to provide.
This line of thought leads to an obvious financial question: are we willing to let or encourage students to go to another university? It’s my personal hope that the answer to this question is a resounding yes. If a university practices the idea of competitive advantage, it will recruit students into programs where it provides a marketable value to the students, and redirect prospective students otherwise.
The decision of a university to pursue the creation and delivery of a degree program is driven by financial concerns. For example, a donor might provide a financial incentive to create or renew a program of study at a university, say, an economics program. Now, the university may not have a competitive advantage in economics, if it has the program at all. This doesn’t mean the university should abandon the creation of such a program; however, the university must foster the creation of the program to ensure the competitive advantage does develop. This means developing the program with a clear sense of what nearby institutions — competitors — are doing with their own economics programs to ensure there’s differentiation among them, and ensuring graduates of its program go on to success.
The counter argument is that competitive advantage may never materialize. For example, if a large manufacturing company with a need for engineers relocates near a university, an incentive to create an engineering school becomes available. However, if the university has never had an engineering school, it may waste a lot of time and money attracting engineering faculty and students, and abandon the programs in which it already had a competitive advantage in the process. This doesn’t mean universities should never create new programs or change existing ones, but the point is that care is needed to avoid starving your strengths to feed your weaknesses.
Competitive advantages develop over time due to quality graduates. If universities foster and remain in the fields in which they have a competitive advantage, they will continue to recruit top students and maintain funding at acceptable levels.
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