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What Is a Comprehensive University, Who Does It Education, and Can It Survive?

Alongside community colleges, state comprehensive universities (SCUs) are the broad-access institutions that together educate nearly 80 percent of Americans. The People’s University, as Bruce Henderson calls them, “opened higher education to the masses in the middle class. When the baby boomers wanted to go to college in large numbers, it was the SCUs that made admissions less selective and made higher education affordable.” Distinct from flagship universities and private colleges for their vocational orientation geared toward specific regions, SCUs originated as schools that were entrenched in the community. Roughly half started as teachers’ colleges that prepared and educated elementary school teachers in the region. SCUs have faced challenges before, but the outlook appears more distressing today than in the past.


The theory of disruptive innovation brings into sharp relief the nature of the disruptive threat to SCUs from online innovators. An in-depth review of the key players in the field and their effect on the current business models of SCUs will likely prompt administrators and faculty to think more critically about the missions of their institutions. By examining why students “hire” an SCU through our jobs to be done theory, SCUs will understand the need to return to their regional and vocational roots and develop stronger relationships with industry clusters in the area. We conclude by offering some of the pathways that exist for SCUs intent on making themselves indispensable to their regions.

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