3 Higher Ed Lessons From Chelsea Market

Quality, space and wealth

August 31, 2015

My family spent a terrific afternoon this past weekend at Chelsea Market in NYC. Have you ever been? 

Chelsea Market is located in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, hard up against the spectacular High Line linear park. 

Chelsea Market is occupies the ground level of an enormous building that was at one time was the Nabisco factory, the iconic place where the Oreo was invented. Today, Chelsea Market is full of upscale food markets, fun places to eat fresh food, and the best place to get a lobster roll in Gotham.  

To walk around Chelsea Market is to get a glimpse of the future, or at least one future, of higher education.

The amazing business that Chelsea Market does, the place is packed with people eating and taking away delicious fresh food of every description, can tell us some things about our business if we are willing to listen.  

Lesson 1 - Quality Will Find a Market:

The seafood, meat, vegetables, and fruit is fresh (and well-prepared at the restaurants) - at Chelsea Market is amazing, and expensive. The costs are not a result of the ambience or the luxury surroundings (the place is gorgeous but industrial not luxurious, and the quarters are tight), but rather a function of the quality of the food.

Few would disagree that every college and university needs to focus on quality. Where we debate is where that focus should be directed.  

Quality can mean different things depending on which part of the institution you rely on for your paycheck. It is therefore up to leadership to articulate the few areas of quality at the institution that will receive a disproportionate investment of resources. The need to narrow the institutional quality focus will mean that good leadership will be unpopular. There will be winners and losers. But the only viable path to long-term economic sustainability is a consistent and long-term focus on quality.  

Lesson 2 - How Physical Space Should Be Used:

Part of what makes Chelsea Market so cool is that it is located in a big old factory. It is fascinating to imagine the baking on an industrial scale that took place where shoppers today buy artisanal cheese and gourmet tacos. 

The developers of Chelsea Market did nothing to hide the industrial architecture of the space. Exposed beams, concrete floors, and visible mechanicals add to the appeal of the eating and shopping experience.

Over the next few decades the importance of the physical spaces on our campuses will only increase. Online learning, and online learning at scale (MOOCs), have made our classrooms, labs, residence halls, student centers, athletic buildings, and grounds more important - not less. When students have options beyond coming to campus to learn, then the quality of the campus becomes more important if we are to bring anyone to us.  

What Chelsea Market did not do was expand. The footprint of the Market is in the limited size available the ground level of the old factory. The future of higher ed space will be compact, authentic, and re-imagined. Old campus buildings once seen as a liability (all that delayed maintenance), will tomorrow be an asset. It is far better to renovate an old building around a new vision of learning than to build something new. We want to think our new thoughts and develop our new ideas in buildings connected to the past.  

Lesson 3 - The Need To Imagine A Different World:

Nobody working at that Nabisco Factory in the mid 20th century could have imagined that one day the space would transform to a mecca for upscale food shopping and consumption. A transformation from an industrial area of Manhattan, one populated by factories and warehouses, to the affluent residential and tourism center that it is today would, would have seen to the Nabisco workers an insane fantasy.

We in higher ed make the same mistake as the Nabisco worker of 50 years ago. We have a hard time imagining a different reality in 30 or 40 years, and our thinking about where higher ed will go is rooted in our current reality.  

When you think about the future of higher education I recommend that you hold two big trends in mind. First, in 2050 the U.S. will be a much wealthier place than it is today. Second, in 2050 the U.S. will be a more populated (although not over-populated), diverse, and older society.  

Estimates vary, but a reasonable projection of per capita income in 2050 is about $100,000 (in today’s dollars - with per capita income U.S. income in 2015 coming in at wound $53,000).   This wealth will be unequally distributed across a range of factors (region, education, race/ethnicity, and age), and if current trends continue more highly concentrated.  This is not a statement about mobility, poverty levels, rates of unemployment - or about public funding of postsecondary education. Rather, it is a recognition that these outcomes will be driven by political choices, not underlying economic possibilities. 

As for population, keep in mind that the U.S. will add approximately 100 million new people in the next 40 or so years, and that almost all this growth will come from native non-white fertility (not immigration).  

Every higher education institution should be preparing for a wealthier and more diverse population. 

This does not mean that every student will be wealthy, quite the opposite - as the lowest end of the income distribution is found amongst the populations that are sending (and will send) the vast majority of new students. Rising societal wealth, however, will raise overall expectations of quality and value. Every school will serve an increasingly diverse population - and the majority of students will expect levels of quality (and amenities) reserved for the minority of students that we consider affluent today.

Higher education leaders should be planning for 2050 with a high degree of confidence and excitement. There is no reason that today’s incumbent (legacy) institutions shouldn’t be tomorrow’s postsecondary leaders. 

The world of colleges and universities will be better in 2050 than it is today. Learning will be better. Research will be better. Campuses will be more interesting. Higher education will be more valued. 

Places like Chelsea Market should give you confidence in the future of higher ed.

If those of us working today in existing colleges and universities can’t put ourselves in a position to take advantage of this bright higher ed future, than someone else will surely take our place.

How do you think about the future of higher ed?



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