Can the Traditional College Model Survive?

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By Walter Wendler

As we begin 2019, anyone involved in higher education, student or family member, spouse or friend, high school principal or daycare worker, instructor or president, knows things are changing at universities. Whether a public or private, for-profit or not-for-profit, online or on-campus, universities are in flux. And this broth of changing forces affects every aspect of university mission: Service to students, relationships with faculty, responses to oversight bodies, and our notions of accountability are all changing.

And, we had better get used to it because the rate of change increases while satisfaction with the traditions of university life decreases.

Financial difficulties plague any university. University enrollments are shrinking as birthrates decrease. Qualified high school graduates are harder to find. States have reduced funding and eliminated programs. American prestige in higher education is sliding worldwide. Fewer international students come to the States to study. All according to a recent report from Wiley.

Not a shrill sky-is-falling observation, but the truth. Universities can do little to mitigate some forces at work, but opportunity to address others exists. The first job for any institution is simply to assess and refine definitions of success and quality as the context of higher education shifts. Our souls need not be sold to the devil to accomplish the required transformation.

Contemporary students are more likely to be from under-represented minority groups, international, not in their early 20s but moving towards their early 30s, or originate not from a graduating high school class but from the workplace, the military or the ranks of the unemployed. This swirl, or swill depending upon perspective, of changing conditions is lamented ad nauseam by leaders, faculty, governing bodies and others associated with making universities more effective.

In response to these forces, and others, universities are increasingly focusing on distance education, transfer initiatives, the potentials of dual enrollment, reducing costs to students, increased philanthropy and positive responses to the “work readiness” of college graduates. New ways of approaching the business of universities are needed, and they are a business to be sure: But not Walmart, Dillard’s or HEB in spite of the efforts of some to convince everyone of the demise of higher education into the abyss of a retail wasteland.

Another response is to blame politics and government forces for their inaction in funding and support for higher education. Too easy. Likewise, accreditation standards at the national and state level or the challenges for increased demands of credentialing graduates of diverse postsecondary institutions are in the cross hairs of concerns. All of this epitomizes a clamoring for accountability in human processes, fraught with human frailty allowing no easy answers.

To address these challenges, the following are some things that universities can do.

One – Provide ever-increasing means of access to students who are employed and parents “rusty” on study skills. A key component on this front is digital instruction through a cell phone or personal device, such as an iPad. Even the burden of personal computers today are unnecessary and antiquated.

Two – Find radical ways to reduce costs for attendance. Partnerships with industries and places of commerce that tailor educational programs to meet needs driven, in part, by off-campus nonacademic entities. Meeting corporate needs is a way to gain corporate support in a complex and intellectually challenging learning environment that maintains control of its soul. What is required in most 42 hours of coursework in a core curriculum currently offered would have been skills, insights, abilities and critical thinking skills that were possessed by 90% of the high school graduating classes only 50 years ago.

ThreeInnovation, not necessarily to turn a buck but to turn a mind, must be central to university life. It creates both intellectual and economic value for both student and institution.

Four – Institutions must honestly share the immediate and long-term value of the certification sought by students. Too often the intellectual honesty of this exercise exceeds institutional will. It may cause some institutions to dispose of ideas born a century ago, but make little sense to the majority of students in 2020.

Five – When John F. Kennedy applied to Harvard University, a plea in his application letter was to be a “Harvard man.” This kind of thinking may have been acceptable, but it is not now, even at one in one-thousand institutions. It completely fails the balance of the remaining institutions and the vast majority of students.

The preponderance of universities should heed Bob Dylan’s admonition:
Then you better start swimmin'; Or you’ll sink like a stone; For the times they are a-changin’.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University.  His reflections are available at http://walterwendler.com/

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