As you pass through towns like Gainesville and Hillsboro, you can’t help but notice the shuttered outlet malls. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, these super-retail sites began cropping up all along major U.S. highways to take advantage of the natural traffic flows. Placed in the right locations, these outlets would attract travelers passing through and also served as point-to-point shopping destinations for people in nearby cities. In those days, for example, the Gainesville outlet mall served as a fun one-day shopping trip for folks in the Oklahoma City area.
These days, those remote retail destinations are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Successful outlet malls today are placed in strategic locations within metropolitan areas, providing targeted shopping convenience close to the populations they serve. And, just as local outlet malls have replaced remote, highway shopping destinations, we also see more focused and targeted high-end strip-malls replacing the once iconic everything-in-on-place mega-malls the began cropping up in the 70’s.
Related in a more linear sequence, we’ve gone from single-building retail shops to early strip-malls to mega-malls to remote super-retail sites to local outlet malls and high-end strip-malls.
Over time, the retail pattern has taken us from centralized, everything-in-one-place shopping to a more decentralized and distributed what-people-in-this-area-want experience.
Increasingly, the brick-and-mortar retail pattern has evolved into a focus on delivering the kind of shopping specific populations need in their current location. And, as I said at the top of this post, I see a clear resemblance between that brick-and-mortar retail vision and the future of college education.
Like retail stores, colleges and universities began as everything-in-one-place experiences. Students resided at the university, they studied at the university, and they ate and socialized at the university.
Similar to the centralized mega-malls of the past, however, many higher education institutions find themselves less attractive to the populations they once served. These populations have developed more narrow interests. They are also looking for a college education that is more flexible and sensitive to their location and needs.
To meet the needs of today’s families and prospective students, colleges and universities will become increasingly decentralized in their offerings and offer more of a what-people-in-this-area-need experience.
A case in point is the emergence of more flexible dual-enrollment programs, particularly for rural high schools. Previously, rural high school students thinking about attending college had to prepare themselves to leave home and face a fairly drastic cultural transition. Many were first-generation college students and had no family experience to draw upon. The distance, unfamiliarity of bureaucratic processes, cultural differences, and cost created insurmountable obstacles for most families.
Today, however, we are seeing new, decentralized models that allow rural high school students to begin college while bypassing travel, bureaucracy, unfamiliar surroundings and high costs. Colleges and other organizations are taking college learning directly to rural school districts.
At TEL Library, we see the ideal model as one where rural high school students take college courses while still in their local high school. In this model, students don’t have to complete complicated paperwork to get started on their post-secondary journey. They can complete a year of college study in a familiar environment with existing school and community support. Best of all, they can do this at an incredibly low cost.
Designing a what-people-in-this-area-need college learning experience for rural high school students has many benefits. It can certainly save tens of thousands of dollars for families. Equally important, it can equip students more completely for success in college and professional life. Finally, this decentralized college-learning experience can foster strong pathways between today’s rural high school students and the businesses and career providers in their local region.
I am excited about the opportunity we have at TEL Library to partner with rural high schools in Oklahoma and other states. I believe this is a critical development in the future of higher education in our country.
Rob Reynolds, Ph.D.
Executive Director, TEL Library