Higher Education – Turning the Corner on a New Year

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“The American Dream … is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

—James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America (1931)

The focus of higher education at almost every university in the nation, and from a policy standpoint in every statehouse, is changing. At the turn of the century, many pundits stated that campuses would be dinosaurs. They were wrong. A decade ago, commentators predicted the burgeoning growth of for-profit and online institutions would choke traditional campuses. They, too, missed the boat. As 2017 closes out, the impacts of artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things is taking center stage for the effect each will have on higher education. Change we must. Here are five noteworthy forces at work in the postsecondary educational environment.

First, online courses, artificial intelligence and digitally supported classroom instruction will all create powerfully supported learning environments. This will lead to a hybridization of educational opportunity for college students. We will see in the next year, and those years closely following, a continued shift away from transcripts that list coursework from one or two institutions. Soon, a graduate’s transcript may have formal coursework and credit-bearing learning and work experiences from diverse places, all supported by varying degrees of hybridized delivery.

Second, families and students will address burgeoning costs that lead to crippling student debt and underemployment. Universities, lending organizations and political infrastructure all seem resolute in support of the status quo. Continued growth in transfer of students from community colleges, where costs are 10 to 15 cents on the dollar, will prevail: A student driven response to out-of-reach costs. In addition, dual-credit and concurrent enrollment of high school students in community colleges will lead to more high school graduates with associates’ degrees in their backpacks, or vice versa: A family instituted means of cost control. Universities must articulate and assist the transfer of all highly motivated, vocationally driven hard-working and cost-conscious students, or fail.

Third, in the coming year a renewed commitment to geographic locales, in spite of decades of hypnotic digital promises, will occur. Institutions will drive quality up from a regional perspective. Moreover, because regional similarities exist across our nation and indeed the world, the applicability and value of regionally focused institutions will grow.

Fourth, successful institutions will increasingly focus on cost competitiveness and efficiencies on campus that drive costs down  for students. Ancillary activities will be subject to ever-greater scrutiny. Economy dorms with shared bathrooms and two-star accommodations will increase. Five-star resort-style accommodations may go begging, save for the seemingly fortunate few. The coming generations of students are rapidly becoming non-traditional populations. ’Older’ students are coming back to school and juggling family and work demands. Younger students are leaving high school with half of the college experience completed. All look differently at efficiencies that drive costs down. Fear that such an approach lacks academic rigor is only true if universities make it true.

Fifth, partnerships between universities and community colleges, high schools, trade schools and business and industry will continue to grow. The monastic university separate and apart from the world is not sustainable. Instead, the university needs to be a ”think-and-do-tank,” providing people insight and skill, which are useful to individuals and the places that will eventually employ them. Whether or not it takes a village to raise a child misses the point. Rather, the question is, “Can institutions collaborate to meet student aspirations, a better place in life, fueled by the notion that insights gleaned from education, life experience, work experience and other engagements will be integrated into a constellation of experience that serves students’ needs and desires?” For too long, too many institutions have offered up a plate with a fixed menu but a smorgasbord of required content and delivery that is intellectually rigorous and challenging is required.

Universities enslaved to Western European traditions, some of which are laudable, will suffer. Accrediting agencies will wane in value. Their genesis was needed and well intentioned, but they support many dated traditions that stymie institutional initiatives to serve students.  Elected officials who concede to a predictable status quo will watch as constituents writhe under the weight of postmodern bureaucracies. Lenders will inflict economic hardship that will boomerang back to their doorstep. The professoriate, some of whom want to give back what they received, looks backward rather than forward.

Bob Dylan warbled the point,

“Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’

Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.”

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