NEW YORK -- College leaders gathered here Friday insisted that the time has come for a paradigm shift in higher education, while acknowledging such conversations have persisted for decades without substantial changes in approach.
During the final two sessions of the TIAA-CREF Institute’s Higher Education Leadership conference, panelists suggested colleges will have to rethink longstanding traditions if they hope to reach an increasingly diverse and nontraditional student population that is now falling through the cracks. That means considering three-year degrees, creating greater flexibility for when students take classes, and borrowing some techniques, like course standardization, from the for-profit sector.
"I think we have been talking about it too long. We've been talking about [how] it's going to be different too long,” said Gregory O’Brien, former chancellor of the University of New Orleans and president emeritus of Argosy University.
The pattern in higher education has been to cut administrative functions during lean years, rather than developing new practices that have historically been resisted, according to Kent Chabotar, president of Guilford College. Among the changes worthy of consideration is course standardization, which is often rebuffed by faculty who fervently guard the right to develop specialized curriculums, he said.
"That saves a ton of money,” he said. “Is that right for all of us? Probably not, but it's right for more courses than is presently being used."
Other panelists suggested many degree programs could be condensed from four years to three, allowing students to more quickly and affordably earn a credential. Also discussed was the possibility of starting courses at non-traditional points of the year, moving away from a hard-line stance that classes can only begin in fall, spring and summer for most institutions. While staggered course offerings are common in distance education programs, for-profit institutions and community colleges, they have not spread across traditional four-year programs. Greater flexibility of this kind would appeal to adult students in particular, Chabotar said.
The bottom line is that colleges are going to have to essentially work with the resources they have – rather than continue to believe more will become available, according to Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity and Accountability. During a session entitled “Where is the Money? Leading in a Changing Environment,” Wellman offered this blunt assessment: "Where is the new money going to come from? It's money we've already got."
Private and public colleges have increasingly used tuition hikes to generate revenue, but panelists acknowledged Friday that the public tolerance for this practice is reaching a breaking point. Moreover, Wellman’s own research  has shown that the tuition hikes at public research universities in particular have resulted in little if any new spending on classroom instruction. Instead, the money is used to support ever-growing administrative functions and to merely backfill what’s been lost in state support, the Delta Project found.
The public will remain skeptical of higher education until colleges make a true effort to be more transparent about how they use tuition dollars and state funds, Wellman said.
“We shouldn't let our governments disinvest in this generation of higher education,” she said. “It's no less deserving of public resources than my generation was."
Echoing the current national dialogue, there were pockets of discussion throughout the conference of how to develop greater partnerships between community colleges and four-year institutions. It became increasingly clear, however, that community college leaders felt sidelined from panel sessions that often veered toward issues like billion dollar capital campaigns and tuition discounting, which have little practical application in the community college world.
Eduardo Padron, president of Miami Dade College, referred to his fellow community college leaders as “the invisibles” during the last session of the conference. Other community college leaders similarly expressed concern that the issues they're wrestling with weren't being addressed.
The presidents’ comments illustrate longstanding tensions between two-year and four-year institutions, which have had varied successes working with one another. Even as President Obama shines increasing light on the role of community colleges, there is still a sense that true partnerships between two-year and four-year colleges are uneven at best. William E. (Brit) Kirwan, chancellor of the University of Maryland System, said the key going forward will be the development of “seamless” collaborations that allow students to move from one institution to the other without hassle. While some four-year institutions have developed “genuine” relationships with area community colleges, others have been slow to do so, he said.
"We’ve got to get over that,” Kirwan said. “This has got to be seen as a real partnership with highly articulated degrees."
But the call for greater collaboration comes at a time when the very identity of the modern community college is in flux. Many community colleges, including Miami Dade, have gotten into the business of awarding bachelor’s degrees – a trend Kirwan and Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University, both called troubling. If community colleges award bachelor’s degrees, it won’t be long before they become higher cost institutions where faculty are increasingly occupied with research instead of teaching, Trachtenberg said.
"They will develop all the characteristics of the four year institution,” he said.
Supporters of granting four-year degrees at community colleges, however, say they’re merely responding to a reality in states like Florida, where population growth is rapidly outpacing institutional capacity. 
But maybe building greater capacity for bachelor’s degree production shouldn’t even be the goal of higher education over the next quarter century. That was the sentiment expressed by Kenneth Ender, president of Harper College in Palatine, Ill. The challenge moving forward for postsecondary education will be to elevate the education level for a subset of the population that until the last few decades could participate in the middle class with only a high school degree, Ender said.
“For most [of that population] it has nothing to do with bachelor’s experience,” he said. “The answer is not figuring out a way to send more Americans to baccalaureate institutions. The answer today is to figure out how to help a third of the high school students who never get out.”