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    The StratEDgy blog is intended to be a thoughtful hub for discussion about strategy and competition in higher education.


What Keeps Us Awake At Night

We had another great discussion in the Strategy and Competition in Higher Education class last night, along with a very special guest speaker. 

April 25, 2012

We had another great discussion in the Strategy and Competition in Higher Education class last night, along with a very special guest speaker. 

Warning:  Long post ahead.  Hopefully worth it, and I sincerely hope you’ll join in the discussion by posting comments and questions. 

In last night’s class we spent almost the full two hours in a wide-ranging discussion around a few topics, most of them centered on the general theme of The Future of US Higher Education (aka What Keeps Us Awake At Night).  Kicking off the session, we talked about the student Position Papers, where each student answered one of three questions in a short research paper, then later expanded the discussion with leadership and thoughts from our guest, Doug Lederman.  Here is a very high-level overview of what we talked about:

Is higher education a business?  Most people argued ‘yes,’ but it has some elements of a public good (some very positive spillover effects to society), and hence is a very different type of business that needs special attention and not to be left entirely to market forces.  To have a true market, you need good information, which is lacking in higher ed.  We don’t really know what’s working and the “trust me, folks, we’re a university” is losing its potency as an argument for justifying the rising cost of obtaining a college degree. 

What is the most important issue facing US higher education right now?  In the Position Papers, access and its cousin ‘spiraling costs’ got a lot of play, followed by changing demographics and the erosion of the tenure systems.  The discussion focused more on access/costs, as well as accountability – how do we justify the rising cost of higher education when we can’t say for sure what’s working?  If we lower the cost, are we necessarily lowering quality?  Perhaps the value equation is shifting as the world economy shifts. 

Will colleges lose their monopoly on credentialing?  Right now, employers look to the colleges for the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval . . . but this could change.  As the accreditation system comes under attack (and are the accreditors the keepers of the flame guarding quality or the old cronies guarding their turf and stifling innovation?), and alternative forms of education and credentials gaining momentum (e.g., Khan Academy, digital badges, MOOCs, certificates), perhaps colleges and universities will lose their monopoly.

Is the focus on college completion misplaced?  Does everyone really need to have a college degree?  What about vocational opportunities or some of these new badges, credentials, and courses? And, if the measure of success becomes degree completion, it’s relatively easy to reach this goal through lowering standards, and is this what we want? 

Is it really different this time?  Throughout the SCHE class, we’ve seen times when people said that incumbent colleges and universities were headed for oblivion – as they’re saying now.  But could it actually be true this time?  The warning signs are certainly numerous and prevalent:  

  • State funding for higher education is waning and unlikely to come back.
  • Tuition costs are outrageously high, beyond the means of most families.
  • The cost burden is shifting to the individual/families and the payback for the investment is becoming more difficult to justify (particularly since we can’t really measure it).
  • Many universities are underperforming and it’s questionable what students are learning.  Why do writing and critical thinking skills stagnant or declining?
  • The business model for higher education is under great stress – and is perhaps broken – for all but a relatively small percentage of schools.
  • The pace of technological change is accelerating, allowing us to mimic – and perhaps improve upon – what we do in the traditional classroom. 

What will happen to access?  Will higher education bifurcate so that the wealthy attend college in a full-time, residential setting and everyone else attends online?  Although online and for-profit education is not necessarily less expensive than on-the-ground programs, this could be true very soon (see above point about the pace of technological change).    What might be the implication of this for society?

Will there really be a “great unraveling” in US higher education?  Will scores of universities close and we’ll be left with a large handful of (or a few hundred) traditional colleges and universities and a few, very large, online providers? 

How fast might this much-anticipated change happen?  Doug used a great analogy here – that of a balloon (rather than the much-favored “bubble” that a lot of commentators foresee).  Doug argued that rather than a bubble that bursts, as technological change, new credentials and innovative companies disrupt the market, higher education is more like a balloon with a slow leak. So the market for higher education may not look much different over the next 5-10 years, but quite different in 25. 

I can’t say we solved any of these issues in the discussion last night, but that wasn’t the point.  The point was to understand the issues, how they interrelate, and how the path forward may unfold.  And how quickly and with what potential consequences. 

What do you think?  Will it really be different this time? And how fast will the change occur – big pop or slow leak?

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