A new report surveys higher education stakeholders about the future of the industry, with many agreeing that the current business model may be “unsustainable.”
The consensus reflects the reality of dwindling public support, rising tuition rates and reduced public funding — at the same time schools must figure out how to balance technological advancement with traditional values to stay relevant.
Innovation to stay ahead may still not guarantee great student outcomes
Current economic trends may lead to more socioeconomic divisions, according to Lynn Pasquerella, the president of the Association of American Colleges & Universities. In "Future Forward: The Next 20 Years of Higher Education," most respondents said the preponderance of online education options had been the most seismic development in higher education during the previous two decades.
Robert Hansen, the chief executive officer of the University Professional and Continuing Education Association, said he believes elite institutions will likely remain unchanged in the decades to come, along with the premier land-grant institutions, but he expressed concern for smaller, regional schools.
The increased ubiquity of online programs, which has often become synonymous with access for adult learners, could impact smaller, regional universities differently, since they often don't have the cushion of sizable endowments which affords institutions the flexibility to create new programs.
“If you are tuition dependent and you haven’t figured out how to serve the adult market yet, you’re in trouble,” he said. “I think that’s going to be increasingly difficult as the more resourced institutions develop successful and competitive online programs, precisely because they will be well resourced and quality online programs are expensive to develop. How do the small private institutions compete? It’s going to be extremely difficult for them, so I do think some of them will go out of business.”
But Pasquerella warned that while these may increase accessibility to college, they do not guarantee great or equitable student outcomes.
“They need to look at whether these programs are contributing to students' success,” she said. “Online programs are often offered for access to higher education, but those very students are often the ones most at risk for being underserved. How do we make sure we’re getting the infrastructure to allow them to thrive?”
Pasquerella said an additional concern about higher education structures pertaining to online education was that faculty members are not typically rewarded financially or otherwise for the type of time needed to create successful online academic programs that engage students in disparate locales. She noted that tenure promotion is often based on professors’ publication in peer-reviewed journals, and while this may illustrate acuity in a discipline, it might not indicate ingenuity in crafting online program curricula.
“When it comes to the incentives we provide for faculty, you usually don’t get any more compensation or reward for the kind of innovative and creative assignment structuring that has to take place,” she said. “Are we really rewarding through tenure promotion and through stipends the type of programs needed to help retain students online?”
Survey respondents were interested in how scaling data acquisition and analysis could transform higher education, with George Jennings, an instructional lead at Google Analytics Edu, noting that the sheer amount of data collected in the course of online education led institutions to “have this ability to collect virtually any metric or data point we need to understand whether we’re meeting our learning goals.”
There are numerous examples of school leaders making innovative uses of data to improve services and programs for students, particularly in online learning, but many of the respondents said the conclusions garnered from the datasets generated by online education will only become more detailed and actionable as the tools to analyze that data improve and become more widespread. Additionally, many expect tech giants like Amazon or Google to enter the higher ed sphere in the way they have other industries, with some expressing surprise it had not yet occurred.
“We as education providers probably need to start assuming there will be a day when Facebook or Google or Amazon does become an education provider, and they will be a powerhouse,” Marie Cini, senior academic innovation fellow at the University of Maryland University College, said. “So, I think we should start partnering with them to think about ways to do things at scale. The days of just going it alone on your little hill are over.”
Pasquerella affirmed that an integrative approach to higher education is imperative for colleges and universities to accept, particularly the regional, tuition-dependent institutions which are disproportionately affected by the loss of state dollars. She cited Google’s partnerships with several colleges and universities and the Five College Consortium as positive examples of collaboration — in the latter example, the schools shared IT resources, faculty and a police force serving approximately 30,000 students.
“We need to do more of that,” she said. “And the reality that there’s been a divestment of higher education, as it became seen as a private commodity rather than a public investment.”