Guest post: Eight thoughts on higher education in 2012

Here is an open letter to university administrators by Clayton M. Christensen, Kim B. Clark professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and Henry J. Eyring, advancement vice president at Brigham Young University-Idaho. They are co-authors of “The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out.”

These days it’s perplexing and painful to think about the future of traditional universities. How do we know what’s coming and how quickly it will come? How can we properly prepare for change without sacrificing the university’s best traditions?

In grappling with the uncertainty of the future, it helps to bear in mind four things that, in our heart of hearts, we really know:

1. Many of our current challenges are long-term and will, if anything, become more serious. These include the decline in federal and state support of higher education, the practical ceiling on tuition created by household income levels, and the advent of technology that fundamentally reshapes the teaching and learning processes.

2. The easy-to-make arguments don’t advance our cause. Two of the most tempting of these are the arguments that education is invaluable and that the for-profit sector needs tighter regulation. Policy makers accept these points, and they’re responding accordingly. But their efforts to regulate the for-profits and to preserve higher education funding in the face of health care and pension demands only remind them of the real elephant in the room, the growing per-student cost of higher education.

3. Whether we intend it or not, the university serves scholarship and scholars before students. Students at traditional universities get significant consideration, but it isn’t responding to their needs that makes these institutions expensive relative to for-profit universities and community colleges. The traditional summer break is a leading example of per-student costs being driven up by faculty preference. Another is the time and money spent in research, much of which adds little to the quality of student learning while raising its effective cost. The scholarly view of knowledge, though valuable in its realm, also creates an implicit cost to the majority of students: Because many courses and majors are designed primarily to prepare students for graduate study in the same field, students headed to professional school or directly in the workplace may finish college under-prepared.

4. Defending the status quo is futile, and it’s no fun. Given fiscal realities beyond the control of university administrators, defending the operational status quo means choosing between big, focused cuts or death by a thousand small ones. Trading up to a larger school offers no escape from the grisly task of doing less with less.

The situation in higher education is not without hope. In fact, our hope for 2012 and beyond can be bolstered by four other things we know:

1. The faculty members have good hearts and heads. Few people chose academic life with purely selfish thoughts, and the typical professor is at least as smart as the average corporate denizen. Resisting innovation and time spent with undergraduate students isn’t endemic to the faculty, it’s a natural response to the institutional systems to which they are subject, particularly publication-driven up-or-out tenure. Trapped within those systems and threatened with budget cuts, of course they’ll resist change. But it’s not for lack of inherent goodwill or ingenuity.

2. Young people will always want to go to college. Notwithstanding the power of online learning and social networking, campuses will continue to attract students as unique academic and social gathering places. (To be reminded of this truth, remember how excited we were to get out of the house at age 18 and how deeply interpersonal our most profound college learning experiences were.) Traditional universities might make the mistake of effectively closing their doors through tuition hikes, but there will always be young people who want to get in.

3. Technology and innovation make it possible to grow our way out of financial trouble and organizational resistance to change. In the purely brick-and-mortar, scholarship-driven university model, growing the student body means growing the operating deficit (absent unconscionably large class sizes). However, online learning allows for profitable growth. The financial surplus generated is just one benefit. The other is the growth of the student body, which decreases the need to cut under-enrolled programs and allows others to expand. Growth, with its prospect of new opportunities, fosters openness to innovation and change.

4. The future holds unimagined opportunities. Innovation, especially in the form of new technology, tends to worry even the best-educated and most-skilled workers. In fact, innovation often creates short-term disruption, and that is likely to be true of the innovations coming to higher education. However, the long march of innovation has produced more knowledge workers, not fewer, and it has made their jobs intellectually richer and more financially productive. That will be true of tomorrow’s university professors. Clinging to tradition will worsen individual and institutional disruption, while embracing innovation will hasten a new era of higher education productivity—not only of well-educated degree holders, but of new knowledge.

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