Published on 2013/03/05

Universities Will Serve Better-Prepared Students in a Decade

AUDIO | Universities Will Serve Better-Prepared Students in a Decade
In a decade’s time, universities are set to become more specialized in the types of students they serve. Accepting transfer students may be one of the major changes universities experience over the next 10 years.

The following interview is with Henry Eyring, the Vice President of Advancement at Brigham Young University—Idaho. Eyring is one of the leading voices in the conversation surrounding higher education’s transformation and modernization, and co-wrote “The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out,” with Clayton Christenson. In this interview, Eyring shares his thoughts on the future of the higher education industry and explains how universities will react to the industry’s changes over the next 10 years to work more in collaboration with community colleges.

1. What are some of the characteristics of today’s traditional university that separates it from the average community college?

Well, it’s a great question. In fact, the typical university today was once a community college. And a number of things changed, but I think two of the most obvious and significant are:

1) The addition of a research mission and,

2) The addition of intercollegiate athletics

Now athletics get a lot of attention and are indeed expensive, particularly if you want to do well. In both intercollegiate athletics and research, no one wants to do a mediocre job. So those things, once you get in, both tend to become more expensive. You want to move up into better athletics conferences and likewise, with research, you don’t want to be publishing in the mediocre journals. You are going to invest more time and money, to the extent that you can, to perform better in both of those fields.

And, two things tend to happen. One of them is that you dedicate more resources so it becomes more expensive. The other is that there is a temptation to take resources away from students. And, so, on the margin, there’s a temptation to say, “Well, instead of full-time faculty teaching students, we’ll work with much less expensive adjuncts and then if we get too concerned about quality, we’ll also raise tuition so that we can … keep pace or at least maintain acceptable standards.”

And, so, by those two things and, in particular, the addition of a research mission, the community college, when it becomes a university, becomes quite a lot more expensive. And there’s a risk that it becomes less student-focused and has to pass some of the additional expense onto students.

2. Are the reasons that universities are participating in these activities coming down to reputation building, or is there something else?

I think it’s partially reputation but it’s also just an honest desire to want to do well in these fields. … It’s not impossible to do great research that is largely self-funding or to have intercollegiate athletic programs that are self-funding; it’s just difficult. There aren’t many schools that can cover that cost without looking for what amount to subsidies from other sources, or the alumni have got to provide more funds, or you’ve got to take more out of tuition or perhaps more out of instruction.

So, further … the challenge is not so much being Harvard or [UC Berkeley], the challenge is making the very slow transition from community college to research university and that tends to be a lengthy and expensive process and you’ve got many, many more schools … losing money than making money in the hope of being among the top tier. And I think there’s an analogy to research as well. When you’re really, really well known, your federal research funding can actually be a positive source of cash, net, but that’s not true for very many institutions and, even for the institutions where it is true, it’s not true for all disciplines. And as you embark upon the research mission, you don’t do it with just those academic departments and disciplines where you think it would be profitable; everyone goes. The tenure standard changes for everyone, the allocation of time to classroom versus research changes for everyone. And that’s where you get imbalances. And then, also, for the less prestigious institutions, the ones that are just beginning to make this move, you get into what amounts to a cash bind.

3. How are universities getting away from these traits?

Well, I think that there’s some really neat opportunities on the horizon and in fact … the horizon’s not as far off as it used to be. So we see, for instance, in online learning, the opportunity to educate many more students at quite high quality and at lower cost. So, your capital expense is not so great, with the classrooms, in fact, you can grow the university substantially almost anywhere without increasing your physical facilities at all.

And, so, if an institution sees the opportunity to grow through these new technologies, also through the use of better scheduling — you can’t let those expensive facilities sit idle for four or more months of the year, as the tradition has been — if you see the opportunity to use the facilities year round to serve more students and use technology, you can make growth your friend as an institution of higher education, just as businesses do.

So I think there’s some really exciting opportunities.

4. How will these transformations impact universities in the future?

… I mentioned that the universities need to make growth their friend. So, they need to be using technologies and also scheduling systems and approaches to instruction so that extra student comes in, pays a reasonable price, and the price they are paying covers the cost of education. … And that is what will really be hard to do, if not impossible, for most institutions, without growing. So, making growth your friend is crucial.

The other thing is focus, and especially not just focusing the activities so that you have fewer activities, but focusing more on the students you want to serve uniquely well. So, for most universities, that means more emphasis on undergraduate students and if, as I hope they’ll do, the community colleges are revitalized and succeed in the future as they have succeeded in the past in preparing lower-classmen, I think it means most universities ought to be thinking about serving many more upper-classmen, undergraduate students. And, as best they can, making sure that all of the activities in the institution are aligned with that mission, including the research.

So, I’m a great fan of Ernest Boyer’s four-fold definition of research for faculty scholarship that includes, for instance, the scholarship of instruction and the scholarship of integration disciplines and application. And, so, in everything, universities need to focus on their students and the students that they choose to serve uniquely well. You do need to have a target market, so to speak. And then innovate in the service of those chosen students.

And I think there are great opportunities for success. So many institutions have got a very, very valuable physical plant, built over 100 years and, yes, you have to maintain it, so that’s a great heritage that allows you to serve students who will, if they can afford it, will almost always want to come to a campus, probably not for the 10 semesters that are the average at many institutions, but for four or five or six to be on a campus, to be interacting with other students, with faculty mentors, maybe being involved in some of the research. That will be something they’ll want. … Although the melding of cyberspace with traditional face-to-face space is almost certainly going to be the answer for everyone, not only because it’s less expensive, but because in a lot of ways it’s more desirable, the hybrid is better. But, great opportunities that I see for institutions that can take the best of what they’ve got and meld it with innovation opportunities that were once futuristic that  are now quite present.

5. What about when it comes to competing against community colleges? How will universities 10 years down the line differentiate themselves from colleges?

Well, I think the thing to do is … to understand the original mission of the community college, and there were community colleges in many places, but I think Clark Kerr of the California system gets real credit for designing a system where the community colleges were complementary with what were … initially called the “state colleges,” which were themselves complementary with the state universities — the research universities. So it doesn’t become a competition; it becomes cooperative. …

A university that wants to succeed will welcome transfer students from community college, will …  at least be indifferent and open to taking a student who’s done their lower-division coursework either at community college or, frankly, through MOOCs or for-profit providers. They’ll say, “That’s wonderful! If those students are well prepared, they’ll come in and we will focus on what we do particularly well, which is the upper-division courses. We’ll help you get the nature that will lead to a very valuable bachelor’s degree.”

And, so, notwithstanding that people are asking questions about whether the college degree is worth it, the answer is, yes, it still provides a great benefit both financially and in terms of self-actualization and happiness in life. There is always going to be a place for the right kind of bachelor’s degree. And the institutions that provide those should be very open to accepting the right kind of associate’s degree or other preparation for lower-classmen.

6. So you see universities 10 years from now serving the role of taking students that have some background in in higher education and providing them with that next step towards a bachelor’s degree as opposed to taking kids out of high school?

I think, yes, but that distinction is not going to be quite so clear in the future as it’s been in the past.

I think what we’re going to find is, high school students will be taking MOOCs. … It’s true that a given institution will want to focus on a particular type of student at a particular level of education, but we’re going to see, I think increasingly, an effective high school student will graduate from high school with the equivalent of an associate’s degree. And, so, the university may continue to accept 18-year-olds and 19-year-olds and should just be very open to any student of any age or background who’s prepared for what they’re uniquely focused on and qualified to offer.

7. Is there anything you would like to add about how universities will look in 10 years, and how they will compete against colleges or work together with colleges?

Well, I don’t know; it’s so hard to predict the future. And particularly in this case, I don’t see the kind of wholesale disruption that we have in media, for instance, and I don’t see universities having the “Blockbuster problem,” or the problem of the traditional newspapers.

There’s something about the place and the people that I think will persist, [it] has great, great value. But almost anything that doesn’t have that great value, persistent value, is going to change dramatically. So, if we were to look 10 years out from now, I think … we’d be surprised both by what has changed very little and what has changed a great deal. And I think … being able to distinguish those and being highly innovative in what’s going to change a lot is crucial.

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Readers Comments

Bill Wright 2013/03/05 at 6:31 am

Universities today run the risk of stretching themselves too thin, due to pressure from other universities that they observe doing the same thing. I like what Henry Eyring says about focusing on a set of students your institution is prepared to serve “uniquely well” and targeting activities at that group. It seems to be a more effective use of already limited resources.

Cindy Chao 2013/03/05 at 11:10 am

I appreciate what Henry Eyring is saying about finding a “target group” of students to serve. However, I can see problems arising from this when put into practice.

What if multiple universities identify the same target group? That would increase opportunities for those within the group, but would make higher education less available to other students. In addition, chances are that universities would choose already privileged students as their target audience.

After all, which university (that’s already battling budget cuts and fewer funding sources) would want to become the school for promising, but low-income, students? I certainly see issues of access arising from the model that Eyring proposes.

Higher education institutions should continue to strive to be accessible to the largest possible group of students.

Ryan Loche 2013/03/05 at 10:55 pm

I think Eyring makes a good point about how the addition of a research mission and intercollegiate athletics has had dramatic impacts on universities. How would he propose to make these two activities more viable?

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