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Of all the systemic challenges facing higher education today, one has not received the attention it deserves: The sweeping transformation of the student markets we serve.

Our colleges and universities continue to organize their schedules, policies, services, and curricular pathways around traditional students, although a substantial majority, even in the 18-to-24 year old segment, do not fit this profile.

A large and growing percentage of post-secondary students work full-time while attending school. Others serve as family caregivers. Some balance both. 

All students, whatever their circumstances, must vie for future employment trajectories in an ever-shifting, highly competitive global knowledge economy, where the appeal of many current degrees is tenuous.

Not surprisingly, today’s students arrive at our universities with a new set of expectations. Not resigned to the passive receipt of knowledge, many are eager to interact with and utilize the world of content and experience around them. They have a firm belief in their own power to leverage networks of peers that will help them manage the ins and outs of their everyday challenges.

For these learners, the value proposition of traditional education as we’ve known it is unclear at best.

This shift in student values and expectations is real; yet serious systemic solutions for how universities at an institutional level can adapt to these changes has been largely missing from the conversation about higher ed’s future.

How, for example, are we going to more effectively serve and interface with student populations that...

  • attend, perhaps more than ever before, to the outcomes of their education; 
  • expect a return on their investment and increasingly demand internships, practical experience and direct windows into possible employment paths from the very start of their post-secondary careers;
  • value personalization that is embedded in their day-to-day experiences and that responds to both their weaknesses and strengths;
  • prefer optimized pathways that recognize and credit prior knowledge and experience and allow them to move at their own pace;
  • opt to work across multiple institutions and multiple instructional contexts to get to goal; and
  • demand a student experience accessible anytime, anywhere, and on any device.

Higher education, I would submit, currently lacks the infrastructure needed to meet the needs of these 21stcentury learners or support the kinds of instructional pathways and personalized services that today’s students need to be successful.

Our heritage technologies and business processes, from student information systems to learning management platforms, were designed around administrative requirements over a decade ago and have never fully evolved.

While almost every other consumer facing industry has deployed advanced social networking and personalization and anticipatory analytics capabilities in the cloud---and, as important, made these accessible on any device---higher education’s technology backbone has remained excessively expensive. It's been a nearly immovable impediment to innovation and efficiency.

At the same time, organizational structures, degree pathways, and student support services remain similarly entrenched. Locked into assumptions about learners that are misaligned with their current requirements, we have a system that is seemingly unaware of the challenges these students will face in the future. 

The norms, mindsets, and incentive systems that currently guide decision making severely constrain faculty and administrative innovators as they seek to drive breakthroughs in our student lifecycle management platforms and services and launch cutting edge curricular and programming models that are student centered and relevant to real world needs.

Where does all of this inertia leave us? And what can be done?

Before we can find a path forward, we have to admit that, to date, we have put the cart before the horse. We ask, “What’s the solution?” before posing a more fundamental question: “Why does higher education need to change?”

Higher education needs to change not only because of the evolving profiles and expectations of the student populations we serve, but because too many students are poorly served.

We shouldn’t forget that little more than half of post-secondary students earn a degree.

We must also ensure that our students exit our institutions with something more than debt. We must ensure that our students graduate with having mastered the competencies needed for success, both in life and in today’s highly competitive job market.

Inevitably, someone will implement the solutions that will pilot our next generation of learners to success, but it’s not yet clear who will drive these innovations.

Will it be traditional Research 1 universities? Early innovators like Southern New Hampshire University? The newly formed MOOC providers? For-profits like Capella University? Publishing giants like Pearson? Foundations like Gates or Lumina? In-house industry initiatives (think Deloitte University)? The U.S. Department of Education? Or someone else?

If the existing higher education establishment is to remain a relevant, powerful force in the future of education, it must place a laser sharp focus on HOW to drive fundamental changes in our institutional infrastructure, processes, and mindsets and become a more agile, learner-centered industry.

We face enormous obstacles in our ability to embrace and adapt to any vision of education that is even slightly different than the one we all grew up with.

We need to prepare ourselves now for the more flexible, extensible, scalable and effective educational models that are on their way.

Whether we are ready or not.

Marni Baker Stein is Chief Innovation Officer, Institute for Transformational Learning, at the University of Texas System.

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