The Changing Face of Higher Education

Higher education is undergoing considerable scrutiny lately, and the promise is that this scrutiny will continue, and more than likely increase in intensity. Several recent authors have written books (some that have generated considerable controversy) making a case for the need to change the way we conduct ourselves as institutions devoted to educating our citizens.

One book summarized a study that our students were “drifting through college without a clear sense of purpose” and “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over two and four years in school (1); one advocated that perhaps the traditional college of today could be refocused, as the “disruptive innovation” of online learning forces us to reevaluate the structure of the university today (2); another questions the goal of a college degree for all, stating  “the most fundamental reform that should be made is abandoning the idea that a four-year college education is the appropriate or even necessary choice for everyone” (3); the author of one of the more recent publications (who signs on to the disruptive innovation premise, and the online education solution) states “More than ever, American colleges and universities seem to be in every business but education. They are in the entertainment business, the housing business, the restaurant business, the recreation business, and on some campuses, they operate what are essentially professional sports franchises.” (4)

Generally, these books have been a bit unsatisfying, as they tend to pigeonhole the problems, claiming that much of the issue is that “Higher Education” is inflexible and unwilling to change. Although the authors are correct in proclaiming that we need some immediate focus on the contributing issues, I think that the problems are much more diverse, and the causes much more expansive than these authors have stated, often naively, IMHO. In fact, the books are a good read, and I would never advocate that we should dismiss them or their message. We are facing significant issues in higher ed, and we need to face these issues head-on; these authors have presented some compelling data and arguments.

A 2006 study, from the Council of Higher Education Management Associations (CHEMA), identified the forces of change that are having an influence on higher education. The study queried thought leaders in the area, and listed the drivers (summarized below) that were seen by the leaders as most influential (with percentage responses):

Top Change Drivers in Higher Education

  • Insufficient financial resources    60.5
  • Technological change    32.6
  • Changing student demographics    23.7
  • Aging and expanding plant    21.1
  • The demand to demonstrate outcomes    20.5
  • Rising consumer expectations    18.9
  • Increased regulation    17.4
  • Expectation of 24X7 service    16.3
  • Rising student expectations    15.3
  • Global marketplace    14.7
  • Increased competition    14.2
  • Workforce demographics    12.6
  • Pressure to reduce tuition    8.4
  • Privatization    6.3
  • Decline in enrollment    3.7
  • Managing IP rights    2.6
  • Lack of skilled workforce    2.1
  • Declining student retention    1.6

Although, depending on the university or college, and the students who attend these schools, one could conclude that these drivers might be more or less significant. Also, new innovations, such as MOOCs, could change the order of importance of the responses. Having said that, I do believe that they are all relevant contributors to the situations that we are facing.

We are planning to convene some of the best thinkers in our institution to address the changing face of higher education, whether the issues are the result of the emphasis from some of these drivers (or others), or whether they are as the authors of many recent books have portrayed. If any of you out there have ideas sat to what are areas we should focus on, or your own ideas of how higher education needs to change, I’d appreciate your comments.


1. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa

2. The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, by Clayton M. Christensen and Henry J. Eyring

3. Is College Worth It?: A Former United States Secretary of Education and a Liberal Arts Graduate Expose Expose the Broken Promise of Higher Education, by Dr. William J. Bennett and David Wilezol

4. College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students, by Jeffrey J. Selingo

NACUBO: The Future of Higher Education: A View from CHEMA

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