Digital tech has changed other knowledge industries much faster than higher ed, but seismic shifts are still coming to colleges. So a sideways look at consumer behaviors when it comes to music, movies and newspapers provides insight into where higher education is going and what leaders can do to prepare for the future.
Once upon a time, the music industry meant gramophones, Victrolas and record players, and large companies called labels controlled what got recorded, the talent that recorded it and the sale of the recordings. The advent of the cassette tape began a steady decline in the power of labels by giving consumers the ability to record the music they wanted rather than having to buy the whole album the label sold. But it was the digital revolution and the introduction of the MP3 audio file format and music file sharing services started by Napster that turned the industry on its head. Today, consumers—owing to online streaming services like Apple, Spotify and Amazon—can stream all the tunes they can handle for the price of a small subscription.
The motion picture industry was similarly dominated by a small number of studios that controlled talent, production and distribution. The studios faced competition and antitrust regulation that broke their grip on both production and distribution. The development and widespread adoption of new technologies—VHS tapes and DVD discs- empowered consumers. But the digital era has brought the rise of Netflix and other streaming services—so many that these days it’s hard to keep track of them all. Several have even extended their activities to include film production. The bottom line is that consumers gained control of where, when, and what media they consumed.
The nation’s newspapers started earlier than these other industries and were different in two major ways. They grew locally and the majority of revenue came from advertising rather than from customers. As radio and television came onto the scene, newspapers sought to adapt and control the marketplace by purchasing radio and television stations. By 1953, newspapers owned 40 percent of TV stations in the U.S. and 64 percent of the radio stations in operation. The Federal Communications Commission in 1975 established regulations limiting media cross-ownership. Then came the Internet, along with alternative news sources, social media, podcasts, blogs and the rest. Newspaper circulation dropped by nearly half between 2005 and 2018, from 53.3 million to 28.5 million, and advertising revenue decreased by more than 70 percent over the same period, from $49.4 billion to $14.3 billion. Consumers could place classified ads for free on sites such as Craigslist and advertisers could more efficiently reach their target audiences with digital advertising through Facebook or Google. Again, digital disruption had upended an industry.
Higher education, of course, is decidedly different from those consumer sectors. Many colleges are nonprofits. A considerable number are public. And students only enroll for discrete periods of their lives, though the benefits last a lifetime.
Our colleges have certainly had to adapt to changes caused by digital technology, but they have as yet been spared the level of dramatic disruption seen in other sectors.