Published on 2013/10/29

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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Readers Comments

Ravi Narayan 2013/10/29 at 9:33 am

Automation and digitization are two seemingly moderate, behind-the-scenes changes with big impact. I know this for a fact because I’ve seen the impact on my institution, most notably from a customer service perspective.

A few years ago, we had an issue where we were receiving hundreds of calls a day about our academic programs. Prospective clients were frustrated that the average wait time to speak to a live agent was about nine minutes, and our agents were getting fed up with answering the same questions over and over, and seeing callers hang up because they couldn’t reach them in time. We set up an automated line that took traffic off the main line to reach a live agent. If callers had straightforward questions (e.g. orientation dates, registration documents), they would receive pre-recorded answers. Only complex issues went to our live agents.

We launched the line as a pilot, but have since added more automated responses as feedback from both prospective clients and our staff has been overwhelmingly positive. We’re still waiting on data to confirm this but, anecdotally, we’ve cut response time from nine to about six minutes — still a ways to go, but I’m confident we will get there as we improve our automated response system.

    Ian Temple 2013/10/31 at 4:19 pm

    Hi Ravi — a GREAT example of how automation improves customer service. So what’s next? And what are you doing to improve the student experience? Raise the bar! – Ian

Shaun Wright 2013/10/29 at 1:39 pm

This is an accurate description of the competing viewpoints that exist around higher education modernization. On one hand, there is frustration among students, parents and employers while, on the other, there is unwillingness of administrators to adapt or pushback from within the institution for the few that dare to discuss change. This shows we need to do a better job of bringing all players to the table, where they can discuss needs and operational realities and develop solutions that work.

Bill Davis 2013/10/29 at 3:58 pm

Institutions have a challenge ahead of them in terms of addressing the second D — doubt. Gone are the days when getting a degree was seen as a given. Nowadays we hear a lot about the arts graduate who works at a coffee shop, an image perpetuated by media. Institutions, particularly public ones, have to address these misperceptions early on and develop a convincing response. Otherwise, you can improve as many processes as you want, but you might not have anyone still interested in your product.

Dr. Tom Phelan 2013/11/04 at 4:24 pm

Technology has long brought forms of enhancement to the learning environment. Professors who use it well have good results. Students who think a college education can be obtained on an I-phone have no idea what they are missing. The answer lies in improving instruction, regardless of the delivery system. Robert Gagne’s nine events should still be part of every lesson, classroom or online. It’s the learning process that counts, not the delivery system. As for “non-traditional” learners, read Malcolm Knowles for ideas on how to use self-directed learning.

Joe Beckmann 2013/11/04 at 8:26 pm

How in the world – or, rather, what world to you inhabit – to cite four “D’s” and ignore the underlying “D” problem: debt! Until or unless higher education can rein in costs, and – even less probable than your other “D’s” – DELIVER more and better for less DEBT, the end of both higher ed and economic viability is on a frightful horizon.

So powerful is this problem that “competency-based” options are moving faster than any of your other “d’s” imply: from the College of America to WGU versions of practical credentials at low cost with ongoing support, there soon will be no other option feasible.

    Ian Temple 2013/11/05 at 10:46 am

    Hi Joe,

    I wsh I could disagree with you but I can’t, so thank you for The Fifth D. Yes, $1 trillion of student debt and climbing n America today. It’s a huge issue, one that’s only going to get worse unless we make major systemic changes. Te move to competency based options I think are good; can they gain a large enough foothold fast enough to matter? That’s my question and my concern. In my mind the larger question is how do we get university faculty and leadership to see the change imperative? Is that a bigger problem than Debt?

    – Ian

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