College as a Commodity?


While watching a presentation this week, I was informed that college education is increasingly being viewed as a commodity rather than a differentiated product. “A what?” you say? That was my reaction, too. So I found this helpful article—“Commodities Versus Differentiated Products”—and it got me thinking again about what we’re doing here at Bethlehem College & Seminary.

A “commodity” is viewed exactly the same, no matter who it comes from: “every bushel of number 2 corn (15.5 % moisture) can be substituted for every other bushel of number 2 corn.” When applied to colleges, it would be like saying, “A college degree is the same no matter where you get it. At the end of the day (or four years), there’s really not much substantive difference.”

A “differentiated product,” however, is “uniquely different from those of its competitors.” The goal of every college is to convince prospective students that “our college really is different than all the rest.” Which is funny, because when you get a pile of letters in the mail, or attend a college fair, it can be hard to tell them all apart.

The bottom line is that in the marketplace, you can charge more for a differentiated product: “If it is a better product, the company can charge a higher price for it.” Hence, the drive to produce the perception that what you’re offering is truly unique and better than everyone else’s—if you can differentiate you can justify your prices.

Is Bethlehem College & Seminary really a “differentiated product” when it comes to college education?

  • Church-based—I don’t know of another accredited church-based college in the country.
  • Cohort model—I know of other schools who offer cohort options for particular programs, but at Bethlehem, every freshman is placed in a small cohort with which they study for the first two years.
  • Mentoring—not just academic advisors (we have those), not a particularly good RA (we don’t have those), not just pastor-scholars for professors (we have some of the best of those!)—mentors. Every student is paired with a mentor to walk with them through this crucial period of life.
  • Integrated curriculum—I don’t know of another program anywhere who offers history, literature, philosophy, theology, and Bible in an integrated format the way we do at Bethlehem. There really isn’t anything else like it, anywhere.
  • Serious Joy—30 years ago John Piper re-articulated Christian hedonism for a new generation. Seeing and savoring Christ is woven into everything we study here. We’re about glorifying God by seeing and delighting in his word and his world. Classes regularly begin with prayer and song before diving deep into texts.

If there’s another college anywhere that offers this unique combination of factors, I haven’t heard of it.

Which brings me to my last point: you’d think with a program as unique and as valuable as ours, that we’d be justified in charging much more for it than other schools do. However, this proves to be yet one more way that Bethlehem College & Seminary is bucking the trends, and approaching things in an upside-down fashion.

  • Serious Joy Scholarship—Tuition costs $16,000 per year, and we give every student who comes a $10,000 scholarship, which makes the actual cost to the student $6,000 per year.

Not only are we offering a top quality education in a totally unique setting, we’re charging a fraction of the standard cost rather than a premium. Yet another way we’re turning the world upside-down, one market at a time.