Is Higher Education Ready for the Coming Changes?

The Higher Learning Commission (HLC), one of the regional accrediting bodies in the U.S., has published a collection of papers on the future of higher education.

One of these papers, “Revolution of Postsecondary Education: The Unbundling,” addresses the confluence of disruptive forces that are challenging higher education institutions to change their business models. At the outset of their recommendations for institutions, the authors write:

The changing nature of the student population, new technology-infused delivery models, and the just-in-time training and education needs for employees are the basis for considering an evolution to a market- and outcomes-based subsidy and regulatory structure. Clearly, time and price influence students’ decisions about whether to take the risk of earning a postsecondary education credential. Moreover, with new alternatives, more students may not want or need a two- or four-year degree, may not want or need the full campus-life experience, and may be looking for a shorter and more compact experience at the best price. The following recommendations are presented against this backdrop.

None of the authors’ observations are particularly groundbreaking, but it is notable that an accrediting institution like HLC, in partnership with its constituent colleges and universities, is recognizing the impending shifts on the fairly immediate horizon. To be clear, however, recognition of inevitable change does not necessarily translate to a readiness to address it.

The 74 addresses this contrast nicely in a recent analysis addressing the question of why America’s educators are ready to innovate and adapt but our education systems may not be. Here are their three conclusions for creating a more agile public education system.

1. Schools should teach to the extremes, not the mean, so they capture talents that are now being lost, and motivate many kids who are now settling for mediocrity. From the earliest ages, student learning opportunities should be customized to build on individual talents and potential. This implies that schools may not always be the best positioned to deliver all of those opportunities, and thus must be reoriented to curate portfolios of learning, growth, and career preparation opportunities—rather than deliver all instruction and supports.

2. The traditional lines between high school, college, and career must be completely reimagined to allow students a more affordable and direct pathway to high-paying jobs.

3. Schools cannot be the sole learning space. Students and their families should be able to access learning experiences now locked up in community resources, such as businesses, hospitals and clinics, social service organizations, cultural institutions, colleges, and churches.

Meanwhile, as we look at the challenging landscape for higher education, we see smaller institutions already feeling the impact of change. Another small college — Hiwassee College in Tennessee — announced that it will be closing. We also see come small religious colleges, struggling to meet the financial requirements of regional accrediting bodies, shifting to more flexible accreditation organizations.

As part of their response to change, many small colleges are also rethinking what a liberal arts education can/should mean in today’s world.

To succeed, small liberal arts colleges across the country are rethinking their approach to curriculum and how much students pay for it, focusing on the value their small size affords to offer hands-on learning experiences and imbue students with leadership skills.

Of course, some forward-thinking large universities are also making major institutional changes to address the future. For example, Arizona State University is creating a for-profit venture that will focus on developing partnerships with employers to attract more students to the ASU’s online programs, in the vein of its partnerships with Starbucks and Uber. The university is also looking for other research universities to join the venture.

The potential to reach students via their employers is tantalizing to many colleges, given that some 36 million adults in the work force have some college experience but no degree, and millions more have no higher-education experience at all.

Colleges are attracted to the employer-paid market in part because it reduces their cost of recruiting students. Employers are being hotly courted on a national scale by institutions like Purdue University Global, Southern New Hampshire University, Western Governors University, and the University of Maryland University College, which just announced plans to change its name to the University of Maryland Global Campus and spend $500 million over the next six years to to build its visibility with a less-confusing brand name.

Rob Reynolds, Ph.D.
Executive Director, TEL Library

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