Breathing with double lungs: How higher education can thrive in a changing market

Arizona State University, for instance, is a leader we can look to that has diversified its offerings past the traditional four-year, on-campus student, emphasizing its commitment to both Core Education and Education Expanded.
Greg Jones
Greg Jones
Dr. Greg Jones serves as president of Belmont University. Follow him at

Imagine it’s the year 2027, and you’re an administrator at a university. Enrollment is steadily declining, and the pressure to fill classroom seats feels insurmountable. If the trend persists, your job and those of your colleagues could be on the line. It’s becoming a matter of survival.

Though this picture describes the future we hear of every day as we collectively work to address the challenges we’re facing. Consider taking some inspiration from an essential activity you do every day to survive, something you are doing right now: breathing.

Breathing with two lungs helps humans thrive. While people can function on one lung, they will not work at full capacity. Reaching their full potential becomes a challenge. Developing our second lung, however, allows us to breathe deeper with greater efficiency and endurance.

Higher education is at a crossroads that demands immediate action: We must innovate with new revenue streams or face the adverse effects of an impending enrollment cliff. As institutions, we must activate a double-lung approach.

Colleges and universities must develop a second lung that will allow our organizations and our people to thrive. I think of these lungs as Core Education and Education Expanded. These are two complementary approaches, and each side of the lungs blends stability and innovation. Core Education is what our institutions have always offered and long excelled at: research, trademark courses, mentoring students to be excellent professionals.

But our work—our business models—cannot stop here.

Education Expanded, our second lung, broadens how we think about education by adding new capabilities, enabling us to engage the world in new ways and breathe deeply. This could be expanding who we view as “students,” the modality of courses, or how we use our facilities to impact learning, ultimately expanding our revenue streams beyond traditional student tuition. Working in tandem, these concepts beautifully blend security and creativity.

Operating with healthy double lungs, our institutions can adapt to changing market conditions as we enter a new era of higher education. And we can draw inspiration from leaders in other industries who have successfully demonstrated the value of this double-lung approach to propel their organizations forward.

For example, Apple has long operated with double lungs, moving forward on its core business—consumer electronics—while venturing into health care and streaming services. Apple’s approach has allowed it to maintain dominance in its core business while positioning itself for growth in other industries. Just look at the hit show, and Apple TV+ product, “Ted Lasso.” Johnson & Johnson is another example of a business that has thrived by utilizing its double lungs. Starting in manufacturing sterile surgical dressings and home first aid kits, J&J now—through two significant acquisitions—has earned a competitive spot in the pharmaceutical industry.

Few institutions in higher education are successfully implementing these concepts. Arizona State University, for instance, is a leader we can look to who has diversified its offerings past the traditional four-year, on-campus student, emphasizing its commitment to both Core Education and Education Expanded.

While young adults and their families remain a crucial audience we’ll continue to serve, Education Expanded allows us to scale our impact. Universities can offer innovative learning—and solutions—to those outside of the traditional student. We can partner with businesses both locally and globally to offer continuing education through corporate training and development. We can foster the entrepreneurial spirit of those already plugged into our communities, strengthening our ecosystem. And we can create networks of people and institutions interested in impacting the world in the ways we are, scaling our time, talent and treasure and supporting our collective goals of helping people succeed.

Utilizing both lungs is essential as we face uncharted territory in higher education. By both maintaining our core business and thinking critically about how we can diversify what higher education means and its role in solving our world’s most complex problems, we can achieve stability and transformation. As institutions, we need to know our differentiators and scale what we already do well, while also finding other revenue sources.

Much is at stake here. Higher education is at a turning point, and those that fail to adapt will suffer. But there is great hope for institutions willing to embrace change and operate with double lungs. By collectively committing to a more comprehensive approach—cultivating a culture where innovation can thrive—our entire industry can thrive. The enrollment cliff becomes a speedbump, not a fence.


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