The Defining Characteristics of the Future Mid-Range University
One theme that has been top-of-mind for university leaders over the past decade has been the evolving role of the mid-range institution. Clayton Christensen and Peter Drucker, among others, predicted that universities that don’t commit to significant changes will find themselves in a bad situation—whether that means bankruptcy or acquisition. While the elite institutions are somewhat safe from this paradigm due to unflinching demand, and the community colleges are also protected due to their strict mission, the mid-range universities found across the United States need to reconsider their value proposition. In this interview, Mike Simmons proposes the role of the mid-range university evolve into legitimizer and credentialer, rather than curator.
EvoLLLution (Evo): Why do mid-range public institutions need to evolve?
Mike Simmons (MS): The roles of mid-range and larger public institutions—especially those that aren’t research-intensive—are evolving because of three things.
One is the availability of information. The previous role of the university as curator of information has shifted. People don’t generally get information—scholarly or not—from us anymore. My 10- and 12-year-old sons are learning information where and when they need it and when they eventually go to college, I can only imagine how commonplace this type of just-in-time learning will be.
Second, we have competition. We’re evolving because there are others in our marketplace now. Public universities had what amounted to a monopoly on high-volume higher education before, but now there are plenty of folks out there offering it in a variety of forms and formats.
Finally, the market itself changed. There are a lot of students who just don’t fit into the traditional higher education framework we’ve created; whether they’re international or first-generation students, rural or mid-career, there’s a large non-traditional population that needs to be educated. There’s a market need that we just aren’t set up to rapidly meet.
We can maintain our business but we can’t gain more of the market without changing some of our model. For our university, we probably won’t shrink below our size now due to natural population growth in Texas, but there’s a large population of under-served folks that are going to look elsewhere.
Evo: What are the students enrolling at those mid-range institutions actually looking for?
MS: Students decreasingly care about the name on their credential. Employers also decreasingly care about the specific credential. Amazon was here last week during a career fair and they said, “I don’t really care what you teach in the classroom related to specific subjects, I need graduates who can communicate, think critically and work in teams. That’s what we’re going to interview them about.”
That’s different than offering a specialized degree in marketing, logistics or history—which we do. Students can get the employer-demanded soft skills in a lot of different places, so how do we fit in that process? We’ve always relied on so-called liberal arts, or general education, but is that meaningful to students or employers if we can’t specifically demonstrate the learning?
Evo: One of the issues that keeps rising to the surface in conversations about the long-term viability of mid-range universities is that they’ve been trying to replicate the “Harvard model” without being Harvard. To your mind, what will be the defining characteristics of the future mid-range university?
MS: It comes down to quality control. It’s the idea that while there are lots of providers out there, someone is still the legitimizer of knowledge. We might not be the teacher and we’re not going to be the sole source of information, but we can be credentialers. Faculty will use their critical judgment and subject matter background to determine what skill sets and credentials are legitimate.
We won’t be the main deliverer but we’ll be the legitimizer. That’s a different role and frankly it is threatening to all of us, particularly our faculty. I teach and it scares me.
However, that’s the change in education. Non-traditional education has been going there for a long time, and now traditional higher ed has to go where the learner owns what they’re doing and that makes us all uncomfortable.
Evo: When we talk about the transformation of the role of these institutions to credentialers and legitimizers, what’s getting lost?
MS: The one thing that you have to give up as a faculty member is the notion that you are the content provider. We all want to be that fountain of knowledge. Today’s students have so much access and there’s so much technology and so many self-driven learning opportunities. We have to change the role of faculty to recognize this. No one likes to “have their role changed.” It just sounds unpleasant!
Evo: It can be very difficult to make these kinds of changes without the support or backing of faculty. What do senior leaders need to do to make sure their institutions can actually transform into this new role?
MS: You don’t do it institutionally or individually; you do it programmatically.
The provost or the president may talk about this in grandiose terms but that doesn’t particularly impact change, it just raises the topic. An individual faculty member may adopt this—and I’m sure many have—but that doesn’t change the institution either.
The middle ground is programs. There are several programs here and at other institutions where you’re starting to get these interdisciplinary degrees—a Bachelor of Arts and Applied Sciences, a Bachelors of General Studies, competency-based programs and the rest. You’re seeing a lot of innovation and movement towards this focus on legitimizing and credentialing skills, and that’s at the program level. If you really are going to infect the place with change, it is at the program level.
Evo: How did you come up with this concept, and why did you start thinking about how the role of the university could evolve?
MS: That whole notion of finding alternative approaches to education led me to look at other methods of credentialing, like badging. Even now, we can basically measure individual learning outcomes through learning management systems or other structures and when we do that we are, in effect, credentialing basic skills. That sounds very vocational to most people in higher ed but in the long run, the ability to measure learning outcomes is what we’re supposed to be about and now we can do that with increasing scope and scale.
The other thing is that virtual credentialing is picking up steam. We see a lot of it in the K-12 space today; my kids talk about what level they’re on in their games, what badges they’ve earned. As a result, they create parallel virtual identities with immediate feedback and rewards based on their accomplishments in the virtual world. I don’t know why that wouldn’t get bigger over the next decade as these kids go to college. They’re going to be expecting to learn based on virtual activities. They’re going to expect immediate feedback. Immediate recognition of attainment.
Evo: How long do you think the process will take for most mid-range institutions with a teaching mission to transform to this credentialer of learning approach?
MS: Within a decade, we’re in that world. This is based on a few factors. One is that the continued decline in public funding necessitates pruning and cuts. I can’t imagine a state institution like us failing completely. However, we need to be customer-driven and we must respond to their changing needs as the market shifts.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about this changing role of universities and how institutions can actually go about creating these kinds of changes to their role?
MS: The first thing is that we need to see it as an opportunity not a threat. If you view it positively, if your role is indeed to serve students and help them learn, then it is our responsibility to do that effectively in ways that are meaningful to the student.
The pace of change is such that you don’t have a quarter century to change your mold. You can change your mind set in terms of pace and in terms of seeing this change as an opportunity instead of a threat. I’ve chosen to be comfortable with the pace of change.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Administrator