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Higher Education through the Looking Glass (Part 2)

Higher Education through the Looking Glass (Part 2)
Trying to predict the future can ultimately affect its outcome, but it’s critical for higher education institutions to be aware of shifts in the industry and to remain open to massive changes.

The following is the conclusion of a two-part interview with David Donnelly, director of continuing education and special programs, at Sarah Lawrence College, on the future of higher education. In the first installment, Donnelly explained that technology, finances and the redefinition of higher education were the three most significant forces of change in the higher education space. In this interview, Donnelly shares his thoughts on the likelihood of the predicted changes coming to pass and on the impact speculation can have on the future.

2. Will these changes come about? Why or why not?

Colleges will change in some respects and not change in others. Justifiably, some colleges will retain what has worked for decades and survive pretty much intact. But there will be change felt in varying degrees, from slight to sweeping changes. The changes alluded to above are already happening. However, in looking at the larger discourse on change and the future of higher [education], we can note with the benefit of hindsight that many forecasters tend to overstate the degree of change, misjudge the impact of one force, like technology, or overlook unseen forces, which have a surprisingly powerful and unpredicted impact. And many pundits rely solely upon intuition as their forecasting methodology. Tomorrow is the result of countless seen and unseen forces interacting in a highly complex way. Despite the certainty that characterizes many forecasts, the future remains unknowable.

I can say with confidence, however, that the post secondary education system will become more diffuse, and the institutional innovations taking place on the fringes will expand our thinking about college.

We hear frequently that colleges can no longer take a “business as usual” attitude, and this is an explicit acknowledgment of change.

So, yes, some predicted changes will occur, some predicted changes will not happen and, significantly, some unpredicted changes will materialize.

3. The higher education industry is in an era of significant change, and speculation as to the future of the industry is rampant. What impact is this speculation having on the industry? Is it causing positive or negative change?

All of this speculation is having both a positive and negative impact on higher education.

On the negative side, misinformation and unjustified criticism has skewed the discourse. The media leans toward the sensationalistic, embodied in magazine titles like, “College is Dead.” If we cave to the criticism completely and abandon much of what works, then that is a concern.

On the positive side, few things motivate like fear. And this fear is not just hypothetical; reality is setting in as some colleges struggle with new competition, the impact of the recession, changing demographics and the skeptics and critics espousing the merits of forgoing college altogether.

Colleges tend to be complacent entities and the perceived crisis has forced a change of attitude, prompting engagement and self-reflection that goes well beyond the routines of periodic strategic planning.

Also, the possibilities embodied in the forecasts open up the imagination and set the stage for a new level of innovation — and innovation is a great route to survival and reinvigoration. The barriers of entry have been lowered and we are seeing new competitors enter the sector. We are seeing new approaches as we rethink education. For example, three-year degrees, MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses], institutional partnerships, unbundling of degrees, alternate credentialing, the College for America and Open SUNY initiatives, flipped classrooms — these are a few of the small- and large-scale initiatives that embrace change in higher [education].

The debate over the value of a college degree may be a blessing in disguise. We have heard our critics voice concerns in the past, but with higher costs and high unemployment of recent graduates, the attacks have intensified and reservations about how well we are preparing students for the workplace of today and tomorrow has gained traction. The common complaint from parents is we do not provide enough “practical training.” Employers have voiced other concerns that do not focus on the practical skills but on insufficient critical and analytical skills, oral and written communications skills, and other byproducts of a liberal arts education. This is a conundrum that needs to be explored. Nonetheless, there is an unacceptable level of dissatisfaction about what we do among parents, alumni, employers and regulators.

So, this debate over the future of higher education allows educators to play a major role in rethinking education and leverage this opportunity to clarify, refine and, where appropriate, defend what we do. We have a shared mission in higher education, common goals that transcend individual institutions. And, ultimately, even though some of the discourse over the future of high education is unnecessarily inflammatory and likely inaccurate, as we make decisions today that influence our shared future, the outcome of this debate and our actions can be an improved, more affordable and accessible and valuable and diverse post secondary system that will more effectively serve the needs of our nation.

To see the first part of the interview with David Donnelly, please click here.

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