Preserving what?

While they continue at full speed, higher education institutions face the challenge of remaking themselves.  In the coming years this will shift from cosmetic tweaking to preserving the best and losing the rest.

It is difficult to identify those ‘best’ characteristics without sounding nostalgic and all rah-rah.  Perhaps everyone can identify a few special conversations with a mentor who has influenced our lives, moments of insight that have dotted our academic careers, and enriching experiences that we have shared with classmates or colleagues.  Until quite recently these events always happened in a specific place and ‘real time.’  It may not always be so.

While academics are sorting out what courses will or should migrate to the digital domain, folks engaged in the planning, design and management of the campus as a place, need to sort out those events and experiences that will still require ‘real place and real time.’  These will turn out to be the only reasons for the campus to continue to exist.

In his recent presentation as part of the CFHE12 MOOC, Jeff Selingo, an editor at large of The Chronicle of Higher Education, identified five disruptive forces that are changing colleges and universities:

  • Poor completion rate
  • Rising student and institutional debt
  • Declining demographics
  • Improving alternatives
  • Questionable value

Any of these forces alone would be threatening.  Together these conditions create an environment that may not be survivable for many institutions.  Yet he theorizes three aspects of traditional higher education that may remain, due to the fact that they are difficult to migrate into digital forms:

  • Maturing students
  • Supporting faculty to student relationships
  • Conducting research

Are things like the residence hall or first apartment experiences, on-campus social programs and the roar of the sports events really essential?  How about ‘live’ face-to-face interactions with a ‘real’ faculty member or the engaging study group?  Perhaps all of this and more have lasting value, but some of these traditional markers can be dismissed as expensive luxuries.  Some students will always be able to afford them.  Most students can’t afford them now, with only about 15% of higher education students attending traditional four-year institutions.

Research may not be a luxury, but it is expensive.  The myth persists that research is a money-making enterprise for higher education.  However, knowledgeable observers such as Richard DeMillo, former Dean of Engineering at Georgia Tech, point out that sponsored research typically costs institutions $2.50 for every dollar that they receive in funding.  Internal subsidies derived from undergraduate education, gift funding, and endowment earnings make of the difference.  In the long run, this means that only relatively wealthy institutions can continue investment in research.  All of the rest will be faced with cannibalizing teaching programs to subsidize their desire for prestige through research.

The next several years will see a ‘shake out’ as institutions with less viable business models become less able to provide education and the ‘luxuries.’  Are the social experiences, occasional though meaningful interactions with faculty members, and a platform for research the only lasting justifications for the campus?

Deciding the campus characteristics that can or must be preserved will be part of meeting this existential challenge.  The sooner each institution makes these choices, the more viable each will be.  Procrastination is not a good strategy.

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