Is This The Death of Higher Education Institutions?

Do you see what we see in the world of higher education? Is this the death of higher education institutions as we know them?

For the past 18 months, I have been blogging about higher education.

Part of our portfolio of assignments includes strategic work we have conducted for higher learning institutions. Challenging is the disconnect between the institution and the workplace. There appears to be a built-in bias against the needs of industry. This resistance has created a reluctance on the part of administrations and faculty to understand what their students will need to succeed after they leave the university. Why are colleges failing their students?

Our research among employers delivers a recurring theme: please, they say, you are sending us students with excellent technical skills but without the people skills that they need to communicate, coordinate, collaborate and creatively solve problems. Industry seems to be responsible for those softer skills that higher education should be instilling in their students.

This severe conflict is between what is needed and what higher education is delivering. The battle, however, goes far deeper. The institutions offering higher education are facing a coming crisis, of which this disconnect is only one of many they must confront, and now.

The disconnects are leading institutions to take too long to see what is coming and make the changes that are necessary to ensure their institution’s survival.

What is coming next?

Let me refer you to a June 5, 2018 article in The Atlantic Daily by Adam Harris entitled “Here’s How Higher Education Dies.” Harris forecasts a bleak picture for academic institutions in the future. His thesis is that higher education institutions have probably peaked regarding enrollment. Harris suggests that the highly competitive /selective institutions will not be similarly affected by these demographics and demand. For the rest of the industry, demography is indeed destiny, and the next generation of college students is going to be smaller, sharper and less willing to pay for the traditional college experience.

The next shifts are going to challenge the traditional higher education model that has prevailed over the past half-century.

Further, as the futurist Bryan Alexander argued in 2013: “…came to the conclusion that after nearly a half-century of growth, higher education might be as big as it could get. It would only get smaller from there.” His follow-up blog in 2018, the prognosis is coming true as enrollment from 2013-2018 has declined 6.7% from 2013 enrollment of 19,105,651 students to the 2018 numbers of 17,839,330. Further, there are major changes taking place in that student body. These are from Alexander’s 2015 blog:

• “Adult learners were much more likely to avoid college than traditional-age students. For example, those “24 and Under” went down by 0.8% overall, while their seniors dropped by 3.6%. The difference was especially stark in the two-year sector, where the under 25s declined by 1.9%, but their elders plummeted 7.0%.

• “Women continue to outnumber men in student numbers, by 10,611,385 to 7,981,219.

• “Bigger is better this year. Smaller institutions (“under 3,000”, “3,000 to 9,999”) experienced declines of 2.4% and 1.9%, respectively, while larger ones (10,000 or more) grew by 2.1%.

• “New Hampshire enjoyed an almost off-the-charts growth, rising 19.0%! That’s probably due to SNHU’s online success.”

You might want to read Alexander’s projections and the data supporting them. Not a pretty picture of what is to come.

Is there a real nugget of hope here?

How can colleges turn these lemons into lemonade? We often tell clients that if they want to change, have a crisis or create one.

Could the coming crisis turn these highly talented institutions into real engines of change?

Harris notes: “….it could mean a shifting of institutional priorities — particularly in the students they recruit and teach, moving away from a primary focus on 18 to 22-year-old towards more adult learners.” Maybe it is more than just a different demographic. The need is going to be there for reskilling, and life-long learning and new organizational models and people skill development—if the colleges can become innovative centers for change.

So why not? On one side, demographics show that there will be a smaller pool of traditional high-school graduating students for colleges to compete to serve. There will not be as many students coming out of high school to go to college.

On the other side, we know that the rate of change is so rapid that adults of all ages must become lifelong learners. As people are replaced by AI, by Robots and by machine learning, and even by their jobs disappearing, they are going to have to reskill. That adult-learner market is going to expand and is going to want a wide range of pedagogical styles to fit their personal needs. AT&T has embarked on its amazing $1Billion retraining of 100,000 of its employees using Coursera, Udacity, and universities to reskill its employees. Traditional colleges are going to have to step back and take a hard look at their business model, their tenured faculty, their dependence on adjuncts, the role of classrooms, everything that has been sacred to them in the past is ready for a re-invention phase.

Pushing forward, this could mean that from an economic view, getting a four year “academic degree” from a non-elite institution, might be beyond the means of traditional college age American. Particularly as the demographics are bringing many more African-American and Latino students into these college campuses. Even as early as 2012, states across the country were seeing the rising numbers of these students coming into the college communities, changing college demographics while raising the same questions about the real role of a college and the value of its degree. We have to remember that “For years, the Census Bureau has forecast that the U.S. will have a majority-minority population by 2043. Whites remain the nation’s largest racial group, but their birth rate is declining; meanwhile, non-white Latinos have already surpassed African-Americans as the nation’s largest minority.” In California, in 2014, “the state’s flagship, nine-school University of California system announced an eye-opening milestone: that it has admitted more Latino students (29 percent) than whites (27 percent) for the 2014 academic year. Thirty-nine percent of the Golden State’s population is non-white Hispanic.”

While there is a real expectation that the future requires a college education, the real ROI may not justify the expense unless something dramatic begins to transform that college experience, so it becomes relevant for both their students, of all ages and the needs of the workplace.

Where could we go from here?

Following that logic further, perhaps we should focus on outcome driven education. Does the institution prepare me to enter the workplace? If so, what skills are you going to teach me to get my first paying job and how are you going to nurture me throughout my career? When you provide me with all of this, does it provide me with an acceptable return on my investment?

I think that there is a need to ask the following: what or who is the student of the future? What will the needs of the future mean? Do we have the resources to make a shift to align what we teach or do with what our future student needs?

For many institutions, they can halt the decline only if they can understand that there is a sea change coming and begin to change now. That could mean tearing down what they have built for the past 50 years and transition to a new paradigm. My partner likes to say, quoting Darwin: It is not the smartest nor the strongest that survive but those that are the most adaptive.

The future is now!

As we have worked with universities, there is often severe resistance on the part of faculty and/or administration to face this coming crisis. In part, there is the fear of change. In part, it is the politics restraining the big idea people from leading forward. In part, it is that the crisis has not yet hit them.

Regardless, we can only urge you: Don’t put off how soon you rethink, rework, redo.

The trends are becoming a very different future than the past. Put your belief in your current revenue stream aside. While the revenue stream is attractive now, look at the demographic trends in the future. It doesn’t sound like a very different future.

So, what do we do?

I once worked for a boss who told me that good problem solvers take everything apart and rebuild in new and novel ways. Isn’t it time to do the same for higher education?

Some more reading and podcasts you might enjoy

Can we be of help?

From Observation to Innovation,

Andy Simon