Future of Higher Education Conference (2)

The second speaker at the conference (#masonfuture) was Jeff Selingo from the Chronicle of Higher Education. His remarks began with a focus on how higher education is deeply skeptical of change and unwilling to hear opposing viewpoints.

Then he moved to a discussion of how technology is transforming the relationship between the producer and the consumer — first in the publishing industry, then moving on to higher education. With two speakers in a row focusing on this point, I’ll be interested to see if this theme turns out to be one of the major subtexts (or maybe not so “sub”) of the conference.

Early in his remarks, he mentioned the $307 billion in debt taken on by colleges and universities, but what he didn’t mention is that much of that debt was issued during the two recessions of the past decade at incredibly attractive interest rates. Then he claimed that much of that debt was to finance “amenities” for students. This claim bounces all around the pundit-sphere, we hear it from people like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, but I would love to see hard numbers to back these claims up. If true, it really is a problem, because those amenities do not produce revenue in any significant way.

He then listed “5 disruptive forces.” They are:

  • A sea of red ink
  • Public disinvestment
  • Market pressures
  • Student swirl (taking courses from multiple providers, transferring often)
  • A value gap

[One interesting fact that is a real change in higher ed here in the U.S. is that an increasing number of students starting at four year institutions are transferring to two year institutions. It used to be true that those students never managed to complete a bachelor’s degree. I suspect that is no longer the case, but would love to see data on that.]

Selingo then moved to a more in depth focus on the “value gap” in higher education. He cited various factors that are going to require more and more students to pay more and more out of pocket for higher education. He cited two surveys [the Chronicle’s survey] in which the American public says that higher education is not providing good value for the money spent, while college presidents overwhelmingly thing we are providing good/excellent value for the money spent.

[So what is Selingo arguing here? That we should turn increasingly to academic programs that have a clear path to a career such as engineering or nursing? This is a really fundamental question — are we in business to educate or to provide job training? In his focus on public attitudes about the value of higher education, who he did not mention is employers. A recent survey of employers takes a very different view from the “will my degree get me a job” view of value that he emphasized. I’m not saying he’s wrong about our need to work on the “value” problem he describes. What I am saying is that he presented us with an incomplete picture.]

What will the university of the future look like? Just how different will the future be? As I have been arguing lately, there is a reasonably large cohort of institutions that can remain as “boutique” providers, offering the traditional four year residential degree. The rest of the several thousand institutions are going to experience significant change. As evidence of this, he turned to the now legendary artificial intelligence MOOC coming out of Stanford. Then he moved on to a discussion of my colleague Tyler Cowen’s MrUniversity and argued that there are professors all around the country who have “individual brands” that will make it possible for them to prosper in the MOOC space by following a “free agent model.” What does that mean for institutions? It means that at some level those institutions will be disaggregated. [See my post the other day on what this might mean.]

What’s most and least at risk at a place like Mason?

The “most at risk” list is:

  • Commodity courses (intro courses) [I completely agree]
  • The bundled one-size-fits-all experience
  • The credential (a long term risk, not a short term one)

The “least at risk” list was:

  • Maturing students (the residential campus experience “especially for 18 year olds)
  • Research
  • The student/professor relationship

[But isn’t his point about the “maturing” missing of higher education a contradiction to his arguments about disaggregation? If he’s right that disaggregation is just around the corner, how will that “maturing” take place in a disaggregated online educational program? Also, as he and our president pointed out, the over 22 student is the norm now, so we’re already largely out of the “maturing” business anyway. That would put our “maturing” product into the category of a legacy product, no?]

His conclusion from all of this was that “We tend to overestimate the speed of change, and underestimate its depth.”

After listening to the first two speakers, I have two comments:

1. The context Selingo set, and Cabrera hinted at was, doom, gloom, looming crisis. I wonder if this is meant to sharpen our thinking? Or perhaps to convince us that change is absolutely necessary? We’ll see.

2. Both Cabrera and Selingo emphasized the “new” information that the 18-22 year old student is no longer the “traditional” student in U.S. higher education. I think they’ve both misperceived how their audience likely thinks about this issue. First, it’s not news that the 18-22 year old student is not the traditional student. We’ve known this in American higher ed for more than two decades. And at a place like Mason, we’ve known it since we opened. So, I guess I’m surprised that our lead off speakers felt that somehow we didn’t know this.