University Realities for 2020

Universities face issues spawned during the past half-century that will cripple effectiveness if unaddressed. The standing and ranking perception of campuses will always be important. The best campuses will attend to excellence in teaching and scholarly work, affordability and rigorous academic programs with marketplace value—all benchmarked against peers.

Persistence of students to complete degrees provides citizenship in the alumni community. Alumni appropriately want to belong to a purposeful organization. Graduates want lifelong affiliation sustained by quality—heat, not smoke. Fumes of past achievement and glory remembered are ashes. Alumni should always ask what sparks an institution to make it relevant, creating pride. Satisfying study is not a seasonal commitment, a “one and done” proposition, but a never-ending passion. Wholeheartedly embrace this perspective in 2020.

The appeal of organizations that commodify educational experiences into commercial packages will wane. The value of their offerings follows. An MBA program recently hawked, “An MBA for $9,995 with completion in one year.” Parchment parched, but not ignited.

Enrollment at many universities will continue to be an issue as birth rates decline and college readiness dissipates. Low cost flimsy offerings proliferate. Many voices pitch the scheme that a credential equals capability. Enrollment declines and cost increases, coupled with ever-increasing student borrowing, will lead to some universities crumbling under the burden of a broken equation of low cost, quality, relevance and dissatisfied customers. (I know students aren’t customers, but when they borrow enough money to drive them into indentured servitude they are, in fact, weak-minded customers lead by feckless institutions.) These become the most dissatisfied customers imaginable. Universities sold hope, but delivered horse manure.

Added to these phenomena are many alternatives to traditional degrees, programs founded by employers, and competition from around the globe. In a study by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup, only 27% of polled public masters institutions met enrollment targets for the fall term of 2018. How many met educational targets or encouraged noble citizenship? Admissions officers are concerned about these challenges. But institutional responses offering more of the same, with improved marketing and cheapened delivery, stinks. Those students who are supposed to be malleable non-customers get the faint smell of a rat in their nostrils, and the aroma is getting stronger as institutions confirm student fears with more of the same. And the marketplace relentlessly rejects junk degrees, even when universities won’t.

Integrated into all of this thinking is the increasingly important role of information technology, guided by the pursuit of academic excellence and impeded by legitimate concerns regarding security, privacy and development costs. Approaches to online education that are responsive to student-centered learning, retention, completion, affordability and direct contact with teachers and other learners require information technology on steroids. Quality can be attained. Increasingly, students will be informed and aware of quality offerings whether on-campus, on-line or in combination. The marketplace will grind quality out of the enterprise through informed participants in 2020.

A revitalized view of purpose and result should mark 2020. Continuing a “business as usual” mentality that works to keep universities as they were 50 years ago, in spite of a completely changed operational environment, a radically changing student demographic base and growing anticipations about market forces that affect the value and utility of an earned degree, is a fool’s errand.

Coupled with all of this is a tangled mess of competing and diverse claims and promises to a heterogeneous student population that is nearly impossible to make sense of or navigate. Many major flagship state universities and elite private institutions can continue to conduct business as usual and offer their “father’s Oldsmobile.” However, smaller state universities and regional institutions—an armada of ships of every type and kind imaginable, offering a seemingly limitless variety of postsecondary educational offerings—can’t exist in that fashion. They will sink under their own weight. These workhorses for the masses must operate from another perspective. “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile,” is 2020 vision.

Multiplied, these challenges appear to be daunting. However, attractiveness and effectiveness will thrive for universities that forcefully address the needs of students and regional economies. It is bleak only for those who pine for the past.

The 2020 reality for a student is to know what they are looking for and seize it when they see it. Effective universities will show a willingness to respond to changing times, changing aspirations of students and changing demands of the marketplace. The greatest need in the coming year will be for students to be ever mindful of what fits their goals and aspirations.

Universities should covet that reality in 2020 and forward.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at

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