Universities: Bigger Isn’t Better

American universities’ incessant race to make themselves bigger and better (the Harvard model) has instead driven up costs and deterred students. Pro or con?

Pro: Less Is More—Realistic

Most universities have embraced the revered “bigger and better” model of higher education, but this very model has brought them to the brink of ruin. How so?

To begin with, the model is terribly expensive. Two changes in the world outside the traditional university now make the model unsustainable. One change is lean economic times. Federal and state governments that subsidized students and institutions at ever-higher levels can’t continue to do so. Even prestigious private universities, like Harvard, with successful research programs and large endowments are retrenching in response to decreased funding and anemic market returns. The typical university, which lacks significant research and endowment revenue, must cut costs by becoming less “universal,” consolidating or cutting the departments, degree programs, and courses that tend to proliferate in the bigger-and-better climb.

But simply cutting back won’t be enough, because of another change in higher education—the rise of online learning. A decade ago, it was easy to dismiss online education as an inferior substitute acceptable only to working adults and plied primarily by for-profit institutions. Now, though, the most prestigious universities, including Stanford, recognize its disruptive potential.

In the academic world, bigger isn’t necessarily better. Many institutions must return to their roots in undergraduate instruction, offering technology-enhanced courses year-round and performing research that directly benefits young students—who are increasingly the ones left to pay the university’s bills.

Rather than “bigger and better,” the sustainable strategy for most schools is “all undergraduates, all the time.”

Henry J. Eyring is advancement vice president at Brigham Young University-Idaho (and co-author (along with Clayton Christensen) of The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out.

Con: Size Means Added Value

Management education faces the same challenges any other global sector does. The key is to gain a long-term competitive edge by reaching the sort of critical mass that does not simply bring costs down but also boosts visibility and adds pedagogical value through greater flexibility and choice. An increase in size also allows room for a wider mix of students academically (who initially studied management, engineering, literature, design, etc.) and a more varied geographical makeup.

A greater variety of teaching groups boosts student-faculty interaction and the sharing of best practices while taking intellectual and human relations within a class to higher levels.

A certain size also permits a management education provider to offer a bigger choice of specialization tracks, plus the sort of cultural openness that allies the intake of knowledge with solid career plans and not-for-profit activities. Such an approach also means choosing program participants from a larger overall group whose members wish to steer their careers toward posts of strong added value—posts for which the employment market is highly competitive.

Additionally, a rise in the number of students recruited will bring an increase in faculty size, meaning it will produce more research and become visible, in turn raising higher still an institution’s international profile.

Jean Charroin is vice dean of Audencia Group in France and director of the Audencia Nantes School of Management. He worked for 10 years in the biotech and agrofood industries. He was also a visiting research associate at the Industrial Performance Center, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is currently a member of the AEGIS (Analyse Économique et Gestionnaire des Institutions et des Stratégies, or Managerial and Economic Analyses of Institutions & Strategies).

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg Businessweek, Businessweek.com, or Bloomberg LP.

Reader Comments


Neither mentioned Caltech, an incredibly small school of about 1000 undergraduates and a comparable number of graduate students and faculty, combined, and MIT, a much larger school by an order of magnitude! And MIT and Caltech are a few of our greatest and proudest institutions (they work and study very hard there). This debate is Lame. Bloomberg, come on.


So long as students keep applying to universities(including many students from abroad)there will be no incentive for universities to innovate. Business as usual means ever increasing tuition prices.

A prestigious diploma opens doors and the price of ignorance is not cheap either, so student demand is inelastic.

Universities benefit from favorable tax treatment and from subsidized loans. Therefore, shouldn't the gov't require universities to spend a certain portion of their endowment on scholarships and limit universities from increasing tuition by more than CPI? If universities don't like the restrictions then they shouldn't take government money.

Isaac A. Osaghae

Like in Banking we all know that the biggest is not necessarily the best. (Good bye to the too big to fail doctrine). Big companies do fail. And very soon we shall be reading about the bankruptcy of the big Universities (if care is not taken). The challenge is for each University to determine its optimum size, and continue to operate as an efficient and effective Institution.

K Buechler

While it is true an institution needs to achieve a certain critical mass, beyond that you risk becoming big for the sake of being big. Are you creating value to students, or society, by offering every specialty under the sun? Or, in doing so, are you promoting such an extreme level of specialization that your graduates can't think outside a very narrow range of concepts and ideas?

María Cristina Quiñónez

This is a worldwide problem. Administrators' eyes only see immediate,dollar-shaking results which are soon gobbled up paying for technology, paperwork,everything except education. To educate comes from the Latin " educare" to inform carefully. How so, when the further the better ( online courses)and the quicker/superficial, the more money?? More later

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