A Lesson from Blockbuster Video: Colleges Should Take Note



Yesterday, I heard a sad report that Blockbuster Video will be closing its 300 remaining stores, and shutting down its DVD mail service. This marks an end of an era. Like many of you, I remember feeling giddy when it came time to head to the video store to search for the movies that everyone was talking about, and then rushing back to the store before midnight – with popcorn still stuck in my teeth – to avoid late fees.

The Blockbuster Video business model, which was novel in the 1990s was made obsolete when Netflix began offering DVDs by mail and then streaming movies online. Their inability to quickly adapt to novel approaches to delivering entertainment content ultimately sunk Blockbuster. They failed to take advantage of the changing landscape of home entertainment inspired by technology.

 For a better part of the year, this blog has been dedicated to providing tips to students that are aimed at fostering their success in high school and college. For this post, I want to pivot a bit to muse about the forces that are changing the face of higher education, and the need for all colleges and students to be better prepared for this existential reality.

 I recently co-wrote an article with Dr. Bryant Marks, Associate Professor of Psychology at Morehouse College and Executive Director of the Morehouse Research Institute entitled The Rapidly Changing Landscape in Higher Education and Its Impact on African American Students. The article, which is published in the latest issue of the Journal of Negro Education, Howard University’s Research Journal, makes the case that three forces are dramatically reshaping higher education and thus will have the greatest impact on the participation of low-income and other underrepresented student groups. They are:


  • College affordability, financial aid and debt management;
  • Technological innovations in pedagogy and course delivery; and
  • Competency vs. time-based approaches to college completion.


College Affordability, Financial Aid and Debt Management

 Financial aid matters; students—especially, but not exclusively from low-income populations—who receive financial support to attend college have a greater likelihood of enrolling, persisting, and graduating. The type of aid matters as well. Students receiving grants to pay for college are more likely to enroll and complete their education than those funding their education using loans. In fact, some studies suggest that incentivizing students using performance-based scholarships are the most optimal to increase the likelihood that they will persist. In other words, structuring financial support to align with specific outcomes like completing a certain number of credit hours will motivate a young person to demonstrate the habits of mind that are necessary for college success.

Accordingly, more must be done to close the yawning debt burden students carry when they leave college, now averaging over $25,000. Even encouraging young people to open and contribute to college savings accounts has been found to increase the likelihood that a student will enroll and be successful in college.

If the country is serious about getting more young people into college, then we must do more than providing one-off solutions for lowering the barrier to college entry and success. Colleges and the nation’s policymakers and other stakeholders must address affordability on a massive scale. Otherwise families will find alternative ways to acquire these credentials (read Netflix), made possible by the other two forces below.

Technology Innovations in Pedagogy and Course Delivery

Technology will disrupt higher education as we know it and place more pressure on colleges to come up with novel ways to dramatically reduce the cost of a degree, while maintaining the high standards of learning American colleges and universities are known for. The good news is that colleges and universities around the world are experimenting with new technology to re-imagine the way they teach and deliver courses, but the pace of change is not fast enough.

The proliferation of mobile computing and social media; the almost universal availability of broadband communication; the global demand for online educational content; and growing private investment in education technology all are spawning a “learning revolution.” In a recent survey, 75 percent of college presidents say that they have implemented some form of online learning, and they forecast that by 2014, 50 percent of all college learners will be engaged in some form of online classes.

Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), a free form of distance education offered by many of the most selective colleges in the country have enrolled tens of thousands of students worldwide. Georgia Tech’s plans to offer a master’s program in computer science delivered entirely on a MOOC for just under $7,000 has the higher education sector taking notice.

Despite the transformational promise of technology in education, more research needs to be done to determine the impact of online courses on true learning, particularly on underserved populations. If technology has the effect of removing financial barriers to getting a college degree, but introduces other barriers such as access to the very same technology for low-income families, or differential quality of instruction, then we may be back to square one.

Competency versus Time-based Approaches to Degree Attainment


The expanding availability of online courses and the push to make college education more affordable have caused a reconsideration of the way degrees are awarded. Colleges are exploring new flexible degree options (FDOs) that award degrees not based on credit hours earned, but a demonstration of student mastery, or competencies. Expressed as “can-do” statements or illustrations presented as active verbs that describe discrete activities (for example, “I can prepare an income statement”), this new outcomes-based approach seeks to increase student motivation and potentially reduce the time and cost of earning a degree.

Recently, the US Department of Education awarded eligibility to the Southern New Hampshire University to introduce a self-paced, online program with no traditional courses or professors for $2500 per year. The program enables students to progress at their own pace to earn a degree or credential by mastering specific competencies, while also incorporating prior professional experiences and other online learning they may have completed.


We are experiencing dramatic shifts in education technology and consumer demand not unlike the entertainment industry of a decade ago. And yet, while we celebrate the innovation underway at Georgia Tech and the Southern New Hampshire University to drive down costs of attendance, there are still over 2,000 colleges offering four-year degrees that are slow to adapt to this changing landscape. While many of these colleges may not go the way of Blockbuster Video (at least right away), the three forces discussed here will force these venerable institutions to level the playing field for scores of young people who desire and deserve a college education. Let’s hope so.

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