Higher Ed Lessons From the Mall of America?

Learning from dead malls and big malls.

May 26, 2016

Have you been to the Mall of America (MOA) in Bloomington MN?

This was my first visit to the MOA, and I’m trying to make sense of the place.  As is my way - I will try to understand the Mall of America in relation to higher education.  Makes sense, no?

Who amongst us is not interested in the the death of the mall?  Tell me that you have not spent time on deadmalls.com.

According to a 2015 NYTs piece The Economics (and Nostalgia) of Dead Malls, the number of malls in deep trouble has grown since 2010.  Over two dozen large enclosed shopping malls have closed in the U.S. in the past 5 years, and 60 more are “are on the brink”.

A combination of an overbuilding a retail space and stagnant wages have put many of the country’s 1,200 malls at risk.  Today, about 15 percent of malls have vacancy rates between 10 and 40  percent - up from 5 percent of troubled malls in 2006.  Over 30 million square feet of retail space is over 40 percent empty.

So we have peak mall.

The mall bubble has burst.

Anyone interest in “peak college” or “the higher ed bubble” should also be interested in malls.

The thing is - I don’t believe in peak higher ed. Do you?  

There is no higher ed bubble.  Colleges and universities will be more resilient than we give them credit.

Still, it is worth investing the time to understand the story of U.S. shopping malls so that we don’t repeat history with U.S. postsecondary education.

Which brings me back to the Mall of America.

The Mall of America does not appear to be in trouble.  From what I could tell during the couple of hours that I roamed around the mall - the place is thriving.

A few minutes on Wikipedia lets us know how big the Mall of America really is. 40 million visitors annually.  4,870,000 sq ft. (Big enough to fit 7 Yankee Stadiums inside the place).  2,500,000 sq ft of retail space.  Over 530 stores and more than 12,000 parking spaces.  There is a big amusement park in the middle of mall, and a giant aquarium in the basement.

On a Wednesday, during the middle of the day, the Mall of America was hopping.  Lots of parents with young children, older folks, and mall tourists (such as myself).  Some of the retail spaces were turning over, but I did not see many (if any) vacant stores - and the amusement park and restaurants seemed to have plenty of customers.

So what higher ed lessons (if any) can we learn from the Mall of America?

There may be lessons around experiences vs. transactions.  You go to the Mall of America to experience the Mall of America.  Much of the money spent at Mall of America (I’m guessing) is for things like rides, dining, mini golf, and that aquarium.  The sheer spectacle of the place brings people through the door.

Traditional campus based institutions that build their business models on transactional relationships will not have a bright future.  For at least part of the postsecondary market, the smart play will be bundle more value into the higher education experience.

This is not to say that campuses should build roller coasters or put aquariums in the basement.  You can go to the Mall of America to get that.

What colleges and universities will need to do is bundle those things that can’t be had at the Mall of America.

You can go to the Mall of America to ride a water thrill ride, but you can’t go to a Mall to gain the skills and abilities that you will need to thrive in the 21st century economy.

Getting those writing, analysis, communications, collaboration, risk taking, and leadership skills is a process that best occurs in the context of a relationship with an educator - and within an institution devoted to developing these capacities.

Thinking that the best way for higher ed to avoid the fate of all those dead malls is to go to scale - Mall of America Scale - would be a mistake.

Not every retail experience should be had at the Mall of America.  Not every university should try to replicate ASU.

Rather, every college and university needs to figure out how they are different from the “typical” institution.  Each school needs to invest in their strengths.  Easy to say, hard to do.

Do you see any higher ed lessons from the world of big malls and dead malls?



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