Higher Education Is Adapting to Rapid Changes
We live in an age of predictions – of the economy, the environment, technology, medicine, communication, and much more. Higher education is not immune from trends. In fact, predicting trends at colleges and universities is a very hot topic these days.
That’s because campus life as we know it is beginning to change radically. The trends heralding that change are already here.
My recent visits to various professional conferences have constituted a preview of what administrators and faculty will soon know as reality. Whether campuses are public or private, two-year or four-year, residential or commuter, the changes impacting higher education are inevitable. What remains for us as higher education leaders is to decide how to respond to them and, we hope, benefit from them.
And much of this, by the way, is cause for optimism. Let’s take a stroll around the campus of 2019.
Technology and our Millennial students go hand in hand – literally. Smart phones, iPads, and the rest influence how our students perceive the world, relate to their professors, absorb and use information, and evaluate success. Some faculty voice concerns that the prevalence of information has negated the inclination to learn it; that is, if students can pull up knowledge instantly via their personal technology, they have less incentive to retain that knowledge. They already possess it on their phones; they don’t need to know it.
I would argue, of course, that learning as much general knowledge as possible is still beneficial for any student to participate fully in career and society. And it’s just as important to know how to participate given these wondrous new electronic tools. One of our star young faculty members at Bethany College correctly points out that a student still has to learn the “base information” to learn other concepts, including those that drive technology. “You have to understand what lies behind the technology,” she reminds us.
Yet just as our campus libraries have retooled to become more electronic-driven than paper-based repositories of information, so, too, can the classroom achieve more interaction between professor and pupils. In certain fields, personal technology can be used creatively and effectively in the teaching and learning process, and some of the faculty at Bethany College are already discovering how much fun that can be. Depending on the course, technology can help the student become proficient in analyzing and synthesizing information in the time it once took a professor to dispense it.
In broader respects, technology will help to redefine – if not remake entirely – the campus of 2019. In our classrooms, laboratories and libraries, students will have a greater role in driving the curriculum, filtering knowledge and course requirements through technology and interacting with their counterparts in other nations, in real time, via Skype and other “smart” classroom innovations. Traditional examination formats will rely less on regurgitation of knowledge, and more on regeneration of it.
Because their future employers will expect a high degree of creative problem-solving skills, those students who can refine, reinvent, or redirect ways of using conventional information and knowledge-based skills will garner the most exciting entry-level positions. This will mean that traditional academic department structures will also need to be redefined. Interdepartmental course offerings, collaboration on global study-abroad and other initiatives and the pairing of once-separate disciplines will form a new academic model. At Bethany College, a new program in non-profit management resulted from the entrepreneurial heads of three departments – business, communications and social work – collaborating on a course of study. They added internships, grant writing and other skill sets to the mix, igniting new interest among students in working in the not-for-profit sector. Moreover, for many students the traditional pressure to declare a major early in one’s college experience may lessen in favor of broader skill development. According to a report from the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, “93 percent of employers agree that candidates’ demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.” Colleges will be well advised to refocus at least some areas of their curricula on such career realities.
Out of the classroom, student services will receive a makeover, too. That field will continue to expand to include even more focus on personal wellness, career advising and placement, leadership development, social justice and tolerance and direct support for the growing ranks of non-traditional students such as older learners and military veterans. Colleges as never before will be expected to mold their graduates into productive, socially responsible citizens in tune with their communities’ most urgent needs and underserved populations. What began as service learning nearly a generation ago will encompass new concepts of social leadership and advocacy, philanthropy and engaged citizenship. Again, technology will drive social and ethical perceptions while opening up new employment opportunities to address the intricate societal challenges of the mid-21st century.
Last but not least, the campus of 2019 will bloom as a center of marketing and sales. As traditional student populations decline, competition for philanthropic dollars accelerates and the need for access to influential leaders and resources intensifies, those institutions with clearly defined missions, markets and audiences, communication strategies and operational efficiencies will come out on top. As chief salesperson, spokesperson and “living brand” of his or her campus, the institutional president will lead an engaged team of entrepreneurial faculty, marketing experts, fundraisers and service providers. A college’s strategic planning meetings will be as businesslike as in any corporate board room.
The notion of student as client will expand as pressure mounts on college juniors and seniors to secure their first jobs before they walk across the commencement stage. Demands for value in return for tuition dollars will be louder than ever, compelling higher education to package their courses and services into a menu of convenience, efficiency and comfortable, predictable outcomes. Online learning may never succeed the traditional campus completely, but it will be part of any future mix of educational services.
As I mentioned earlier, not all of this is cause for pessimism. In reality, institutions have already changed many of the ways they operate, and innovative thinking is always welcome in organizations as complex as colleges and universities. The pace will simply accelerate, however, and the law of survivability will be unforgiving to those institutions with small endowments, poorly defined missions and self-image and/or low productivity.
Nor is this an exhaustive list of trends that impact how institutions function. Others include campus safety, individuals’ privacy and the vulnerability of colleges and universities to expensive and prolonged litigation.
Some would say that as a college president, one with a reputation for innovation, I can afford to be optimistic. A 2013 survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education indicates that campus CEOs are more optimistic, in any event, than are faculty members about higher education’s future in America. On the other hand, I have found that many of my fellow presidents share deep concern about what needs to happen to preserve our campuses and business models. We follow the trends closely, and we see change all around us. We are optimistic subject to certain conditions – like being prepared for anything that comes our way.
As much as I look forward to being on the campus of 2019, I am not inclined to stroll across it. That’s because, already, I find myself running faster all the time.
Scott D. Miller, Ph.D, is president and M.M. Cochran Professor of Leadership Studies at Bethany College in Brooke County and a writer and speaker on issues affecting higher education. A graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College, he has served as president of three private liberal arts colleges.