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We are at the confluence of massive economic, technologic and social changes that demand higher education do more than small fixes. We will not thrive if we merely tweak the system to replicate practices of the lecture hall in an online delivery system. This is not an empty warning -- universities across the country are closing programs, laying off staff and faculty, and teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. I have personally been tracking these economic disadvantages for some time now.

Here are the key factors we must consider:

  • Enrollments dropped more than half a million students last fall, capping a decline every year for the past decade.
  • Fewer employers are requiring college degrees; instead they are seeking documentation of specific skills and abilities such as these identified by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
  • Economists predict a grim outlook for the bottom line in higher education. Moody’s continues to put a negative outlook on the field: “Overall, higher education revenue will decline by 5 percent to 10 percent over the next year as universities continue to face pandemic-related shocks, Osborn says. At the same time, high fixed costs and varied assumptions about how long the crisis might last hamper universities' ability to adjust expenses quickly. Operating performance will decline as a result, with about 75 percent of public universities and 60 percent of private institutions failing to generate cash flow margins above 10 percent.”
  • A demographic drop of 15 percent, as an echo of the 2008 recession, is expected to begin to hit traditional-age college attendees by the middle of this decade. This is expected to hit especially hard in the Midwest and Northeast.
  • The Fourth Industrial Revolution will herald the advent of artificial intelligence replacing white-collar jobs that are the target of many degree programs, including middle management, entry-level engineering, therapists, physicists and accountants with positions in such areas as cybersecurity, virtual reality, virtual assistants, blockchain and many associated technology-oriented areas.
  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that Americans are changing jobs and employers at a rapid rate: “The median number of years that wage and salary workers had been with their current employer was 4.1 years in January 2020.”

Our centuries-old model of admitting 18-year-old high school graduates for a four-, five- or six-year baccalaureate, then sending them out for lifelong careers in business and industry is no longer relevant. The average total cost of those years averages between $100,000 and $400,000 including tuition, fees, room, board and associated expenses. Meanwhile, students exchange this for years of potential loss in experience, entry wages and advancement opportunities.

When I started teaching as a tenure-track assistant professor in 1977, far more than half the teaching faculty were tenured or on the tenure track. Now, less than one-quarter of faculty are full-time tenured or tenure-track employees. Increasingly, part-time faculty with no benefits and very low salaries are teaching those students who paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for their degree.

Our worn-out model doesn’t work anymore.

The shakeout of academic jobs, programs and even entire institutions is accelerating. We must recognize the forces at play and respond. The changes require more than merely adjusting our programs and approaches. They demand a completely new examination of the changing student needs, marketplace demand and revenue-generation models.

We are confronted less often with the traditional 18-year-old learner and increasingly with the 60-year learner -- students who return repeatedly through their career seeking upskilling and wholly new competencies. These students need just-in-time learning that addresses the changing needs of employers and entrepreneurs in an AI-rich environment. To best serve these learners, we must anticipate emerging needs and be agile and responsive in developing curricula to meet the job market. That, in turn, requires a close connection to business and industry. It calls for certificates and certifications that are relevant and grow with the learner and the industry.

Is it possible that our venerable tuition and fee model that is open to haggling and situational adjustments has served its usefulness? Is it possible that $1.6 trillion in student debt is enough? Would it make sense to consider -- even on a trial basis -- a subscription model for students, and perhaps employers on their behalf, to pay a small continuing fee for forward-thinking, cutting-edge, career-accelerating learning opportunities? Of course, these could be made available just in time, online, accessible anywhere and at any hour.

Who is leading the deep examination of these changes and opportunities on your campus? Is the institution more engaged in cutting expenses and replicating the few programs that are succeeding today while revising the failing programs than in enlightened visioning of the road ahead?

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