Can U.S. Higher Education Disrupt Itself Before It’s Too Late?

February 5, 2018

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about how disruption will play out in American higher education. My hopes – and concerns – reflect a bedrock belief that America’s colleges and universities operate on an unsustainable finance model that must adapt to new realities. It is impossible to predict how many colleges and universities have the capacity or willingness to make the kinds of structural changes that reach beyond where most have charted their courses.

That having been said, it seems likely that we will see an uptick in mergers, closures, and acquisitions, particularly for poorly endowed and under-resourced institutions that cannot control their financial aid discounts and spending rates.

While almost all institutions feel some level of pain, those with weak governance, internal fiefdoms that fail to communicate across the campus, uninformed faculty, and poorly articulated value propositions will be the first to fall.

EXTERNAL FORCES COMPOUND HIGHER ED’S INTERNAL PROBLEMS

External forces compound the growing problems faced by higher education, where the annual outlook by the ratings agencies has now eroded once again to “negative.” There are a number of quality institutions with financial aid discount rates over 70 percent. A number of these institutions are unable to stop the rise in these rates.

Basic math suggests that as the effects compound, these institutions will so severely limit their options that the impending question on the horizon is how and when they will lose their independence.

IT’S NOT TOO LATE TO AVOID THE DEBACLE AHEAD

In the once robust world of decentralized American higher education, the tragedy is that so much of what will play out could be stopped. There are a number of players who can step in to avoid the debacle ahead.

The first is, obviously, the higher education community itself.

Each and every college or university must determine its value to its community and to American society as a whole. Once defined, its leadership must be courageous in articulating its own value proposition.

Stakeholders – led by trustees and faculty – must accept this value proposition and must adjust their roles accordingly, clearly differentiating what is truly distinctive about their institution – what it does differently than its peers.

The campus community must live within its footprint. And it must adapt to the new realities that fund what it can do best within its means to serve the common good.

STATE AND FEDERAL GOVERNMENTS HAVE STAKE IN HIGHER EDUCATION

The second stakeholder group is government, both at the state and federal level. There has never been an effort to have the state and federal governments coordinate their support, especially their financial support, of America’s colleges and universities. The impact varies widely across states.

  • Is it the responsibility of state governments, for instance, to bolster student aid and infrastructure needs rather than simply provide direct public subsidies?
  • Should the federal government effectively designate America’s research universities as the lead participant in many strategic national research and development efforts?
  • Can the federal and state governments lighten regulatory restrictions in an overregulated higher education industry?

MEDIA PLAYS POWERFUL ROLE IN SHAPING PUBLIC PERCEPTION OF HIGHER ED

The third stakeholder group is the media through which the message about higher education is delivered. Much of the negative perception of education shared by American consumers comes from the sensationalism of anecdote, political posturing, and polling. It festers in an unregulated, hyperactive, and reactionary social media environment. Good stories seldom draw ratings and sell print media. This combination of ratings-driven establishment and out-of-control social media has encouraged new – generally negative — perceptions not driven by data.

The cumulative effect is to throw higher education under the bus, often through some combination of bad data and self-inflicted wounds.

The positive message of higher education’s contributions to the common good in American society is often drowned out by sensational, if often accurate, stories of colleges in crisis. The weakness of its parts effectively drowns out the good of the whole.

CAN DISRUPTION RESTORE PUBLIC FAITH IN AMERICAN HIGHER EDUCATION?

This is the point at which disruption can play a critical role in restoring the faith of the American consumer in the value proposition of American colleges and universities. As disruption sweeps across colleges and universities, higher education is facing the same kinds of pressures as the health care industry.

If higher education, government, and the media that together shape the parameters of higher education continue with their current level of disconnected incoherence, the results may work against a robust college community.

America loses in the end. However, there is an alternative view.

Led by America’s colleges and universities, disruption within higher education can be good for American society – especially if it is intentional and self-directed.

Higher education must break out of the “we’ve never done it this way before” mindset that governs broad national policy despite solid evidence of remarkable innovation in isolated sectors of the academy.

The fact is that the financial model of American higher education is broken. The revenue generated no longer supports the people, programs, and facilities that form the decentralized higher education community that is still admired globally.

Something must be done soon. The answer will likely come from within higher education. My strong hope is that positive disruption arrives before consumer perception and the fiscal crisis intersect to do irretrievable damage.

Originally published on February 5, 2018 on Edvance Foundation.

Brian C. Mithell. Founding partner of Academic Innovators, a solutions company. Author of How to Run a College. Former president of Bucknell University