Free classes can dilute university brands

Tom Dougherty, CEO – Stealing Share

10 September 2012

Education has a value, don’t teach that it doesn’t

The Week recently reported on a popular trend in education: virtual classes offered free by elite universities. While this may sound like an exceptional opportunity for the eager learner, it may not be a wise play for university brands.

These schools “have partnered with a newly launched company called Coursera to offer more than 100 free online courses this academic year; MIT, Harvard, and the University of California, Berkeley, are following suit through a nonprofit venture called edX.”

“This exclusivity is why both students and parents are willing to pay more in tuition.”


university brandsObviously, this is an intriguing option – who wouldn’t want to be able to say he or she had taken a course at Harvard? But how does a school maintain its brand’s integrity when it offers its prestigious commodities for free? Will Duke, Harvard or any other school administering free courses tarnish its brand’s legacy? I think they will if they choose this route.

Free classes will weaken those university brands. Each enjoys a reputation for selectivity and academic rigor. That’s what separates America’s elite universities from all the others. This exclusivity is why both students and parents are willing to pay more in tuition.

Jason Wingard, the vice dean of The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School has it right when he notes that, “Universities recognize that they could be jeopardizing their hard-won reputations and their time-tested business model…You run the risk of potentially diluting your brand.”

Great brands come with high expectations. When we think of Harvard or MIT, excellence comes to mind. Open the doors to the masses and that reputation is damaged.


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