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The Rise of the Machine — The Future of Higher Ed?


We spend a lot of time imagining what the college of the future will look like and how it will respond to the needs of students. Two recent pieces helped fill in some aspects of the higher education picture I had not yet contemplated. Both are well worth your time. And a third article is vital reading for those in the middle of this meltdown: the faculty.

“The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.”

That’s in the first paragraph of Nathan Harden’s article in The American Interest, “The End of the University as We Know It.” If you read that far, you’ve got to read the rest.

Universities are teetering on financial collapse, Harden argues. They are continuing to build for an old-school model — big buildings that will go begging for students. (He is not the only one pointing out this fallacy.) My favorite factoid in the article:

Last year Yale finalized plans to build new residential dormitories at a combined cost of $600 million. The expansion will increase the size of Yale’s undergraduate population by about 1,000. The project is so expensive that Yale could actually buy a three-bedroom home in New Haven for every new student it is bringing in and still save $100 million.

“In the future,” Harden writes, “the primary platform for higher education may be a third-party website, not the university itself. What is emerging is a global marketplace where courses from numerous universities are available on a single website. Students can pick and choose the best offerings from each school; the university simply uploads the content.”

The vision is apocalyptic for colleges, but incredibly optimistic for students. They are on the verge of access to the world’s knowledge and its best teachers — for free or at very low prices.  The Internet has a way of destroying any business that depends on selling information to make a profit, Hardin argues. He has a point — just ask anyone in the newspaper industry, or anyone who used to print maps or encyclopedias.

If all of higher education were to melt down this fast, wouldn’t most of it just disappear? The red ink would be like a lava flow, wiping out all in its path.

I would caution, “Not so fast.” People who run colleges are pretty smart. I think Harden writes very convincingly about why colleges will close — he seems not to have imagined why many will remain open.

For that, turn to the (how’s this for a grabber of a headline?) “Online Education White Paper” from University Ventures, an investment fund. Don’t let the plain vanilla look dissuade you from reading — there’s some visionary observations here.

The paper amplifies a theme in Harden’s article: the advantages of “machine-guided learning” and the unique willingness of the next generation of college students to engage with machines rather than people. The insertion of machines into the learning process, and the resulting data that will be produced, will allow higher education to deliver education as a competency-based product, rather than in classes of cohorts. Educations will be custom designed for students, and their progress will be charted and verified in ways that are not possible with human instructors in large (or small) classrooms.

The report envisions a much tighter connection between universities and employers. Businesses and universities will create a “taxonomy of capabilities” that will describe a person’s skills in far more detail than a transcript or resume can ever do. As this new approach to the job market takes hold, it will only further reinforce the shift to online learning. And that will be the future profit center for universities.

It is a decidedly unromantic view of college, devoid of socialization and learning much about oneself while preparing for a career. Is this the inevitable path that colleges will travel?

That brings me to one final recommendation. If all of the above doesn’t frighten the average faculty member out of complacency, perhaps this blog post will. A research professor writes of how she ends most of her talks with a slide that reads: “IF WE PROFS CAN BE REPLACED BY A COMPUTER SCREEN, WE SHOULD BE.”

Everything in the two aforementioned articles says that is going to happen, in one way or another. Faculty members: It is time to wake up and embrace a new vision for higher education, rather than fighting a rear-guard action to protect the shrinking turf many professors seem content to occupy: the “we can’t be measured” and “why change a model that has worked so well for 400 years?” ground.

I wrote above that colleges are run by smart people, who will find new business models. But the smartest, most creative people on campuses are their faculty member. Rather than shrinking into their offices and labs, they need to be applying their resourcefulness to imagining a new enduring model of higher education.

If the world cannot preserve some the quirkiness and self-actualization inherent in a college education, that will be a profound loss indeed.


The Future Graduate School

Below is the presentation we gave recently at the Conference of Southern Graduate Schools on “The Graduate School of the Future”. There is some good data, as well as insights applicable to graduate schools as well as higher education generally.

College of 2020: The Future Graduate School

Notes from an Uncomfortable Chair


Higher education needs to come up with some new ways to talk about change and success. OK, call me grouchy, but I’ve been ruminating about two recent higher-education conferences I attended. Both had good speakers and good information, but both also showed why higher education is stuck in a deepening rut.

Let me start with the most recent one, a conference on The Future of Higher Education, held at The New School earlier this month. The event featured an impressive list of speakers, including some of the key thinkers about reforming higher education: James Duderstadt, Henry Bienen, and Robert Zimmer, among others. So why did it have such a stifling format? More than 8 hours of speeches in a large lecture hall, kind of like the ones undergraduates sit in for your average 100-level course. Isn’t that the very definition of the failed educational approach?

Much was made of the fact that only one woman was on the speaker’s roster (mind-boggling, given the increasing gap between the number of female and male undergraduates). I can accept the public apologies of the organizers, who recognized the gender gap and explained that all of the other women invited to be there could not attend. But what of the format? If you are going to throw a conference to talk about new ways of approaching and engaging an increasingly skeptical audience, wouldn’t it pay to show how it could be done? Even Vijay Kumar, the director of the office of Educational Innovation and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, could do no better than a static Power Point demonstration. This, from the leaders of the Open Course Ware revolution!

To know what is around then corner, higher education audiences need to experience what the change will mean. The eureka moment is not going to come amongst droning male voices from a distant stage, but it may come in an immersive virtual-reality demonstration. Please people: Show, don’t tell.

I also went to a conference on higher education marketing in Chicago last month, held by the American Marketing Association. I was struck by how much people talked about new challenges in measuring quality. Yet, almost every speaker from a somewhat-obscure college started by talking about their institution’s U.S. News rankings.

Others complained about the financial difficulties they are facing, caused in part by the record-high percentage of financial aid they have to give away in order to get students to enroll. But then many speakers from individual colleges talked of their record numbers of applicants, caused no doubt by churning for students beyond the college’s typical profile, and then having to pay them big dollars to enroll. High enrollment numbers area fleeting measure of success.

At another session, attendees nodded their heads in agreement as a speaker told them that the real growth in students in the near future will be older adults. Yet, almost every marketing campaign discussed at the conference was geared toward 18-24 year-olds.

It seems like we need to find some new models of success. How about:

— Wide ranging articulation agreements between free-standing private four-year colleges and community colleges?

— An arrangement in which College A works out dual enrollment with College B, whereby the strongest majors in College A accept students from College B, while College A sends its students to College B for its strongest majors. It recognizes that every college cannot be strong in every subject, but builds alliances between like-minded institutions that benefit from collective strength.

There are many more models for success. But that’s not the point of this post. My point is not to criticize event organizers — their jobs are hard, and they can’t control everything that speakers say. My point is that for colleges to move forward, they cannot depend on old styles or old measures of success. If the model of higher education is going to change significantly, the way of talking about it has to change, too.


The Statistics That Matter

Mark Twain popularized the statement: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

But anyone who is planning for what a college will need in 2020 needs to start with these statistics. Okay, they are projections, but the carefully researched and methodical look at 2020 by the National Center for Education Statistics needs to be the starting point for planning by most colleges.

We have written extensively about this in our report, The College of 2020: Students, but these latest statistics re-emphasize some of the trends we identified, and, in some cases sharpen them. They should shake most colleges out of any presumption that the potential student body is a homogenous high-school age kid looking to live on campus and cycle through in four short years. That model, for the most part, is gone forever.

Among the projections of the newly released statistics:

— The greatest growth in enrollment until 2020 will come among those aged 25-34 (21 percent), and the second largest percentage growth in enrollment will be among students aged 35 and over (16 percent). Enrollment among those aged 18-24 will increase by 9 percent.

— Enrollment of part-time students will increase by 16 percent from now until 2020, while enrollment of full-time students will increase by 11 percent.

— Enrollment of graduate students will increase 18 percent, while enrollment of undergraduates will increase by 12 percent.

— Enrollment of Hispanics will increase by 46 percent, and of blacks and Asian/Pacific Islander students by 25 percent. Enrollment of white students will increase by 1 percent.

These damn statistics should figure, at least in a small way, to every planning exercise a college is doing. In many cases, the new faces of the future student body will force colleges to change the way they do things.

You can’t go wrong if you are thinking about how to tailor your programs, your services, and your culture for an older student who has some work and college experience already, is a minority, and is scraping together money and time to take one or two courses at a time. How to reach them and appeal to them is your next job.


Technology, Data Mining Will Change Higher Ed


Western Governors University has been somewhat of a sensational success story in higher education. The no-frills provider of online education offers degrees in only four areas — Education, Business, Information Technology, and Health Professions — is growing its enrollment by about 30 percent per year, and has kept its tuition — $6,000 — the same for four consecutive years.

How? By emphasizing productivity, and utilizing technology in classes. “If we can increase productivity, there is more learning for less money. It’s a very simple equation,” said Robert Mendenhall, the university president at a forum called Charting the Future of Higher Education, held Thursday September 15th in Washington. Western Governors is very disciplined about matching each prospective student with an admission counselor, and they create an online relationship. Ongoing students have online relationships with mentors. And much of the learning takes place in student online communities.

Mendenhall said his university is just scratching the surface of the potential of technology in higher education. “We’re only going to have a meaningful impact if we inspire others to try new methods in higher education. Others will find better ways to use technology than we have.”

Speaking of technology, A. Craig Powell, CEO of ConnectEDU, spoke about his growing database of high school and middle-school students, and their talents, desires, and accomplishments. Kevin Carey, policy director of Education Sector, also a panelist at the event,  believes ConnectEDU will profoundly change college admission in coming years by directly matching students to colleges that are the best fits for them.


Entrepreneurship and Creative Lifestyle Design

Creative Lifestyle Design

The students of the future won’t get normal jobs or have normal careers.  Instead many will focus on creative lifestyle design – finding ways to craft the type of lifestyle they want with supporting jobs and non-traditional careers. The traditional path of getting an entry-level position, climbing the ranks, and devoting a career to one company has become a thing of the past.

Climbing corporate ladders doesn’t look attractive for a number of reasons. Pensions have disappeared and employee loyalty is at an all-time low. New jobs seekers are skeptical of “at-will” employment contracts that guarantee little security. Another reality is that many students just can’t get jobs right out of college – either because of a shaky economy or because the skills they learned don’t translate directly into a position. Students who pursue technical or specialized professional degrees will still enter directly into those fields, but a majority of college students don’t fall within that group.

The New York Times recently published an article about the group of students who have graduated between 2006 and 2010. The article profiles a number of recent college graduates who couldn’t get jobs within their chosen career paths after college so they opted for other opportunities. They became bartenders, bloggers, or legal aides. According to a May survey from the Heldrich Center at Rutgers, 14 percent of students who graduated from 2006 to 2010 were still looking for full-time positions.

One trend that highlights the shift towards creative lifestyle design is the company startup wave, where recent graduates or those still in college are opting to start their own companies, because the barrier to entry is low and funding is hot. A February 2011 survey of over 1,000 college students from and Buzz Marketing revealed 21% of students had started their own companies because they were unemployed when they graduated. An additional 36% have started business while still in school.

Entrepreneurship is an essential element of creative lifestyle design. Over the past five years, with both the rise of the Internet and more readily accessible business services, the barrier to entry for launching a company has become very low. Students have noticed, entrepreneurship is thriving, and universities are listening.  According to the Kauffman Foundation Report on Entrepreneurship in Higher Education, “Entrepreneurship is one of the fastest growing subjects in today’s undergraduate curricula. In the past three decades, formal programs (majors, minors and certificates) in entrepreneurship have more than quadrupled, from 104 in 1975 to more than 500 in 2006.

Many of the people who I graduated with at The University of Chicago opted to start their own companies or work as assistants at local businesses, coffee shops, or bars so they could live the lifestyle they wanted. Some even got lucrative consulting offers right out of college, but decided to find more creative ways to live in places like San Francisco, Denver, or Europe.

So how can The College of 2020 support these students? First, help them cultivate a greater understanding of what life can look like after college and provide support for students launching their companies or projects. Also, develop programs that naturally help students cultivate their own ideas about life after college. The most important thing is to foster this type of conversation both inside and outside of career planning offices. On campus, instead of asking, “What type of career are you looking for?” try, “What do you want to do?”


College Tuition Problem


The cost of health care continues to grow at a pace that threatens the financial health of the United States. The real-estate bubble pushed housing prices up at rates that proved unsustainable.

Yet, as Cristian Deritis points out in a fascinating report for Moody’s Analytics, those well-known price spirals were nothing compared to the cost of college tuition. The price of tuition and fees has more than doubled since 2000. Technological and pedagogical innovations are likely to greatly impact higher education in the next decade, but what makes higher education ripe for disruptive forces is it’s simply become too expensive, and, outside of isolated success, there seems to be no widespread effort to contain those costs. A number of reports link this tuition increase primarily to administrative growth. Whatever, the reason, it is undermining the business model of traditional colleges and universities.

Colleges have maintained their privileged position in American society because of the status and monetary benefits the receipt of its product (a degree) can bring. That long-term advantage remains in place. A new report from Georgetown University, “The College Payoff,” finds that individuals receiving a bachelor’s degree earn 84 percent more over a lifetime than those with just a high school diploma. That college-degree tuition premium was 75 percent in 1999.

But that advantage is being lost in the sea of student debt. The outstanding balance in student loans from tuition has nearly doubled in just the last four years, to $750 billion. (see Chart 1 in Deritis report, mentioned above) Students are finding out the hard way that they cannot make enough in some careers to pay off those loans. (Teaching, anyone?) And colleges are rarely responding in creative ways to help their customers.

Look for students, then, to look for alternatives. Straighter Line, for instance, is on an incredible online advertising spending binge, advertising that it is offers college-level courses at 90 percent less than, well, colleges. Students are looking for more answers like that, other inexpensive distance-education courses, and alternatives like Western Governors University, which grants credit for life experience.


The Mobile Campus: College in Your Pocket

Screen shot 2011-07-30 at 11.32.06 AM

This is the first post in a four part series on The Mobile Campus. Over the next few weeks this series will examine how students are using smart phones and the impact on higher education.

Students are literally sleeping with their phones. A recent report from the Pew Research center claimed that 35 percent of US Adults own a smart phone and two-thirds of them sleep right next to their phone. And when they wake up they are now spending more time in mobile application than on the Internet.

A recent report from Flurry, a mobile data company, showed that Americans on average spend 81 minutes a day in mobile applications, compared with Comscore data that shows Americans spend 74 minutes on the internet – on both computers and other mobile devices.

So how are they spending their time?

Of the 85,000 apps that Flurry tracked on multiple mobile devices, people spent on average: 38 minutes playing games, 26 minutes in social network apps (Facebook/Twitter),  9% in News apps, 7% in entertainment apps, and 5% in other. Students will continue to use their mobile devices as a way to get information and explore the world around them. Universities can no longer think about students without their smart phones – they need to consistently be responding to students who are always connected.

Classes and streaming lectures on Facebook? Testing through games?

What do you think?


– Grant Sabatier