"You Gotta Know the Territory": Solutions to the Education Market with Robert Zemsky

            In 1958 I spent a rather extraordinary week in New York City—a California teenager on the loose with two high school buddies.  What proved particularly remarkable was how we spent our afternoons.  Each day we stood in the back of a different Broadway theater—and we saw the best the city had to offer: Ketti Frings’ Look Homeward Angel; Judy Holiday in The Bells are Ringing, and what I remember best, Robert Preston in Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man--a now, too often forgotten musical masterpiece.  Fifty-nine years later I am in attendance at another performance of the musical, this time in an upscale community theater in Narberth Pennsylvania.  What had brought me to the theater was my grandson Noah who had the part of Winthrop, the role that introduced Ron Howard to American movie audiences.  But it wasn’t only Noah that captured my imagination that night.  Once again I was transfixed by the opening number’s clickety-clack of a speeding railroad car filled with traveling salesmen reminding each other of the rules of the road.

You can talk, you can bicker.

            You can talk, you can bicker.

You can talk, talk, talk,

You can bicker, bicker, bicker.

You can talk all you wanna,

But it's different than it was.

No, it ain't. But, you gotta know the territory.

            As it turned out, Susan Shaman also saw the performance—as a favor to her choral director who doubles as the music director of the Narberth theatre.   About then, Susan and I were finishing our-analysis of the structure of the market for an undergraduate education. The more we worked through the data, the more we came to understand that the models we were estimating did much more than provide a rubric for predicting the price behavior of American colleges and universities.  What we had our arms around was an analytic frame that answered a host of questions about the structure the American undergraduate enterprise—its demographics, how it deploys its faculty assets, which institutions are likely to experiment with distance education, and, as before, how it prices its products to take advantage of a much expanded pool of federal financial aid.

            That night in the Narberth theater completed the transformation.  Like most analysts focusing on American higher education we had come to ask why had there not been a more successful reform movement—and the answer we came to, with a little help from Noah and Meredith Wilson, was that too many across higher education didn’t know the territory. Having not understood the market’s varying impact on different kinds of institutions, a whole gaggle of policy makers aided by their consultant allies are responsible for a steady flow of proposals that never have much of chance of making a difference.  

            In The Market Imperative we have sought to explain how those most responsible for higher education policy along with the leaders of the enterprise are making a muck of things.  Much of what they recommend, require, and on occasion implement is not just wrong-headed but actually dangerous.  What we hopefully provide is a travel guide for better tailored solutions--or, as Meredith Wilson and Noah might remind them, for solutions that match the contours of the market. 

Robert Zemsky is a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania. The chair of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education, he is the author of  for Checklist for change: Making American Higher Education a Sustainable Enterprise. Susan Shaman was a senior planning officer at the University of Pennsylvania from 1982 to 1997. They are coauthors of The Marketing Imperative: Segmentation and Change in Higher Education