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The Four D’s Distressing Higher Education

The Four D’s Distressing Higher Education
Advances in technology can provide higher education leaders with a pathway to success in a highly competitive marketplace.

Life is full of choices, and thus 20 years ago, I made the choice to work with public sector leaders in America and beyond, leveraging the power of automation and digitization to change public sector systems as we know them. I believed automation/digitization would change every segment of industry, including government and education. These past two decades have seen the introduction of many digital tools, from ATMs (does anyone under the age of 30 even know what “ATM” stands for?) and online banking to omnipresent music and video on nearly every device (YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, Xbox and “On Demand” anything) to citizen self-service and technology-enabled health care in government. Each is an example of automation/digitization disrupting a segment of industry, be it financial services, entertainment or government.

Gartner Inc., the research and consulting services firm I spent 10 years at, tracks 17 vertical industries and percent-of-revenue investment in automation/digitization. And which segment ranks last?  Education, the very segment government leaders and industry titans refer to as so critical to our future as a nation. McKinsey published a study in 2011 noting that, for the United States to remain competitive with other nations, we need to graduate 1 million more degree holders per year until 2020. President Obama recently stated that, by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world; a lofty and important goal that contradicts the very reality of our circumstances: if higher learning institutions do not immediately and aggressively invest in automation/digitization, these goals will not be achieved.

What’s getting in the way of such needed and important change? In my work with colleges and universities across America, I am observing four “D’s” that are distressing higher education and inhibiting change. These are Disruption, Doubt, Denial and Dissatisfaction.  Let’s explore them further.

1. Disruption

In my 20 years, I have never seen such a potent mix of disruption affecting higher education, from well-funded, for-profit universities continuing to grow enrollment and market share to the introduction of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to the continued erosion of legislative funding for public institutions to the belief that college is too expensive and out of reach for too many. Layered on top of this is a collective caution by campus leaders about how to change, combined with a full understanding that change also comes with risk.

2. Doubt

Many parents and students — and a few high-profile entrepreneurs such as Peter Andreas Thiel, co-founder of PayPal — doubt the time and money spent for an undergraduate degree is worth the investment. With an undergraduate degree costing, on average, $80,000 to 100,000 and more than five years of study, a college education that was once taken for granted is now being questioned. Is there a more fruitful way to invest tens of thousands of dollars and five years of one’s life?

3. Denial

I work with chancellors, presidents and provosts across the country, and when I ask them about the imperative for change at their institution, I usually hear, “Yes, it’s very critical.” But as one president recently told me, “Ninety-five percent of leaders talk about change, yet only five percent actually do something about it!” My observation is many are in denial of how important change is for their institution to remain relevant and competitive to either the 18 to 22-year-old “digital native” residential students or the now common aged 30+ student juggling job and family as she or he earns a degree later in life. And for the five percent of leaders who do want change, they are affected by the often rampant denial of faculty that they need to change.

4. Dissatisfaction

Employers, legislators, families and students are dissatisfied with the “product” coming out of American colleges and universities, or dissatisfied with the outdated experience and rising tuition costs. Students of all ages want curriculum and professors to be accessible anytime, anywhere and from any device as, after all, this is the life they live (see YouTube, Netflix, Xbox, online banking and so on). These constituents are also increasingly aware that colleges and universities can do better, as data from the Department of Education, San Jose State University and others show time and time again that blended or hybrid learning is more effective than traditional stand-and-deliver lecturing by a professor.

It’s a cauldron of frustration, disappointment, rising costs and lack of relevancy, and of greater concern for institutions that historically have educated 75 percent of our population:  public colleges and universities. These institutions are stuck in an “iron triangle” as, if they try to expand access, their costs rise commensurate with an outdated business model and then quality suffers, further boiling the cauldron.

How then can a university respond? Is there a 12-step program for leaders unwilling to change? Is there a foundation-funded early retirement program for presidents or other leaders unwilling to be part of the five percent of innovators?

Leading institutions are investing their way out of this “iron triangle” using automation and digitization to change the student experience — to break the logjam of impacted courses that extend the length of time needed to earn a degree; help learners review material through “lecture capture” technology; provide collaboration tools for students, faculty and staff locally or across distances; or use high-definition synchronous and asynchronous video to broadcast outside experts. In short, these institutions are doing what other segments of industry have been doing for years: leveraging automation and digitization to disrupt their institution, thereby making it more relevant to the people they serve, scaling with improved quality and beginning to affect the very competitiveness of our nation in the process.

Are we at an inflection point where the five percent of change agents will grow? My fingers are crossed!

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