Whither Higher Education?
By now, you have undoubtedly seen press coverage on “the crisis” in higher education, signified by disturbing trends in a number of performance indicators depicted below.
What adds urgency to the purported crisis (which in fact has been brewing for decades) is a gnawing concern that the US is losing its historical higher education leadership — particularly in STEM disciplines — to China, India and other emerging powers.
On a brighter note, many observers point to the emergence of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as the savior that will disrupt and dramatically improve higher education. Some suggest MOOCs will supplant expensive, ineffective classroom education with a cornucopia of web-based offerings taught by the world’s best professors from the best schools on their best day — all for free!
Yet, while few would argue with the need for colleges and universities to bend their cost curve, improve accessibility and achieve better education outcomes, the notion that MOOCs will largely replace classroom education in meeting these objectives is naive folly. There is a role for online and on-campus education, and the challenge and opportunity for higher education institutions is to find the optimal mix for their targeted student market.
So what can we expect to see in the higher education landscape over the coming decade?
For starters, let’s stipulate that the status quo in higher education is unsustainable. No sector of the economy can continue to absorb an ever-higher proportion of household disposable income, particularly with mounting evidence that the quality of higher education outcomes is static at best, and by some measures, actually declining.
Defenders of the status quo may point to the fact that despite tuition inflation, a college education remains a good investment relative to non-college attendance. But as Clay Shirky bitingly points out, this argument casts students as hostages in an extortion scheme: “pay us or you’ll be even worse off!”
The question of course shouldn’t be whether a college degree provides an adequate (albeit recently declining) return on tuition investment relative to an obviously inadequate alternative, but rather, how can we improve the ROI and accessibility of higher education?
There are already signs that market forces are correcting what has traditionally been a hidebound sector of the economy.
But before accepting the dogma that these are early signs of a disruptive tsunami crashing on the shores of college campuses, it is wise to take some cautionary note of impediments to the speed and breadth of disruptive change in higher ed:
To get the discussion rolling, I started by sharing some recent data from widely watched MBA school rankings (Business Week and The Economist) indicating declining student satisfaction with the quality of the MBA education at Columbia and other schools. The intent was to serve as a backdrop to soliciting student suggestions for improvement in business school education. One of the students seemed visibly uncomfortable with where this discussion seemed to be going, and shared a point of view that the CBS community has an obligation to support the school and protect its reputation.
In fact, some students amplified this sentiment by noting that any student who gave less than top ratings on published surveys of student satisfaction were hurting themselves and classmates.
Recognizing the sensitivity of this topic to those still in the anxious hunt for a post-MBA job, I suggested that for the remainder of the class discussion, students should imagine that a decade has passed, everyone has a great job and we are now merely reflecting back on what might improve MBA education for the next generation of aspiring business leaders, including the possibility of disruptive new formats.
To my surprise, one of the students opined that he would still be reluctant to publicly acknowledge concerns with his alma mater for fear that it might weaken his executive stature. In his words, “as long as I have Columbia Business School on my resumé, I’d like it be considered a top-notch B-School. And I hope to play a valued role in recruiting the next generation MBAs from Columbia.”
To take this discussion thread one final step, I asked the class at what point their allegiance might shift from supporting their alma mater to supporting the best business interests of their employer, if in fact, a potential conflict emerged.
“Suppose,” I hypothesized, “an HR director came to you in your capacity of business unit general manager to report that your company was experiencing excellent results by hiring applicants who had supplemented their undergraduate degree with directly relevant skills via targeted MOOC courses. Starting salaries for this new breed of employee was roughly half the rate of a freshly minted MBA. As a result, she suggested that your company should reduce its historical emphasis on MBA hiring. Would you be receptive to such a suggestion?”
One student continued to express discomfort with such a suggestion, thereby providing an unexpected teachable moment regarding just how resistant current stakeholders can be to disruptive threats to the status quo — in educational institutions or corporate entities.
With that caution in mind, what changes in higher education can we expect to see in the years ahead?
First of all, let’s return to what I stipulated earlier: despite earlier flame-outs, this time isdifferent and higher education will be disrupted as new technologies enable viable alternatives to the unsustainably high costs and declining value of traditional higher education formats.
In the long term, resistance from incumbent stakeholders will eventually be overcome by two large and powerful constituencies poorly served by today’s status quo: the 70% of US adults who do not have a college degree and the large number of employers challenged by a skills gap in the recruiting marketplace. The economic potential that can be unlocked by better serving these large constituencies will continue to attract investment in alternative education delivery models from both the private and public sector.
And make no mistake about it: if employers begin to experience positive results in hiring employees who have acquired superior job skills at lower cost than by attending conventional colleges (and therefore may accept lower initial compensation), interest in conventional forms of higher education will decline from both students and employers alike.
But these are still early days in the disruption of an extremely large and complex segment of the economy and anyone who tells you they know how it will all sort out — or even worse, cling to simplistic notions such as “MOOCs will largely replace college classrooms” — is either misinformed or naive.
There are appropriate roles for both online and on-campus education delivery models, and the challenge is ultimately to find the right balance to improve effectiveness at lower cost. Institutions like Columbia University, who currently has the dubious distinction of charging the highest gross college tuition in the US can in fact continue to provide a superior higher education experience (and justify its inherently higher costs), but only by addressing two questions I believe every university president should currently be asking themselves:
Obviously a high level of personalization is not possible in MOOCs with tens of thousands of students. So if universities want to remain leaders in delivering the best quality higher education, they have to ensure they provide more student access to the best teachers backed by research and relevant experience, who are incentivized and motivated to spend time interacting meaningfully and individually with their students.
Unfortunately, this key differentiator for on-campus education is often not a faculty priority, given the incentives typically in place at research-centric higher ed institutions.
In fact, at universities like Columbia or my alma mater MIT, the incentives in place for tenure track faculty are skewed so that the marginal utility of spending an extra hour on research greatly exceeds the marginal utility of an incremental hour devoted to curriculum enhancements, teaching and student interaction. Relatedly, it is already far too common for student TA’s to grade their peers’ homework assignments because professors are unwilling to put in the effort required to provide personalized feedback, or classes have become too large to make such personalization feasible, or both.
On the other hand, professors who volunteer to create MOOC courses are likely to be predominantly motivated by teaching excellence and extending their intellectual reach. The best online teachers will attract the most enrollments and the highest student satisfaction ratings.
Over time, I fully expect that MOOC platforms will evolve towards revenue-generating business models, precipitating a shift in the balance of power from universities to individual academics and practitioners who develop a global reputation for teaching excellence. If the best teaching professionals increasingly find their best opportunities for global impact and remuneration lie outside traditional higher ed institutions, it may further hollow out the educational excellence of Tier 1 universities.
The point here is it that every academic leader should reexamine what it will take to sustain leadership in delivering the highest quality on-campus higher education in the future — not just with respect to traditional delivery models and current protocols, but also against evolving highly disruptive new technologies. The context and priorities will vary from one institution to another. For example, community colleges may choose to focus on online enhancements to classroom education aimed at lowering cost, expanding student coaching (to combat high dropout rates) and enhance flexibility. On the other hand, Tier 1 universities may push the envelope on hybrid teaching models which free up faculty time for more intensive and personalized student interaction.
In any event, the question isn’t whether but how higher education institutions catch the wave of disruptive change.
With respect to the second key question facing university presidents – whether and how to participate in emerging online learning opportunities – no one can claim to know the precise pace and form that disruptive learning technologies will take over the next decade. But I would argue that it is precisely because of this inherent uncertainty that the appropriate response to early stage disruptive threats (and opportunities) should be extensive low-cost iterative experimentation.
Universities need to discover for themselves how to best incorporate new technologies into their on-campus and extended learning environments. I would like to see more higher education institutions aggressively undertaking and sharing experiences from multiple digital learning experiments, including video lectures to “flip” classrooms, MOOC courses to extend learning reach and to gain familiarity with online pedagogical techniques, greater use of video technologies to beam global thought leaders into our classrooms, and experiments with different forms of automated grading for larger online and classroom audiences.
What’s holding universities back? The obvious culprits are common to corporate environments as well: budget constraints, misaligned incentives and the ever present FUD. But another barrier is the significant faculty skills gap that constrains many colleges and universities from gaining widespread buy-in to exploit emerging technologies.
As a case in point, consider how leading graduate schools have adapted their curricula to train aspiring journalists. Ten years ago, J-School curricula focused predominantly on the tools and techniques for becoming an effective print media reporter. Today, J-School courses emphasize multi-media technologies, social networking and digital photography/editing skills which reflect the radical shifts in reporter roles and news delivery formats.
In contrast, graduate students pursuing a career in academia typically get limited formal guidance on general teaching skills, let alone tutorials on emerging technologies to digitally enhance their classrooms. On most campuses, there is simply too little opportunity and incentive for junior or senior faculty to lead the charge on pedagogical experimentation.
So for now at least, as is often the case in the corporate sector — Kodak and Blockbuster are exemplars that come to mind — the leading edge of disruptive change is primarily being driven by newcomers rather than incumbent leaders.
While it is difficult to predict exactly how new technologies, pedagogies and business models will play out over the coming decade, it is a safe bet that those institutions who stubbornly cling to the status quo are likely to find (painfully) that this time it is real: higher education is in the midst of disruptive, transformative change.
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After 40 years in management consulting and venture capital, I joined the faculty of Columbia Business School, teaching courses in business strategy and corporate entrepreneurship
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