Higher Education a Decade Behind

Smartplanet’s Christie Nicholson recently sat down with Jeffrey Selingo, the vice president and editorial director of the Chronicle of Higher Education, who is currently writing a book about the future of higher education in the United States.

In the interview, Selingo told Nicholson he felt that colleges spent the period between 1999-2009 taking advantage of great innovations from previous years and financing growth, without continuing to innovate.

“There was a huge run-up in the number of students participating in higher education,” he said. “Colleges did a much better job at marketing their degrees. And they added a large number of new degrees and new majors. We saw the rise in degrees in project management, sustainability, sports management, entrepreneurship—degrees or majors that didn’t exist fifteen or twenty years ago.”

This allowed them to raise their prices and develop more infrastructural add-ons—like dorms, recreation centers and buildings—that strengthened their brand. However, Selingo added, it came at a price.

“They should have used that ten-year period to set themselves up for what was coming ahead,” he lamented. “That is fewer students willing to pay or having the ability to pay, tough times from government support of higher education, and now many more new competitors online and around the world.”

Ultimately, Selingo felt the higher education industry did not sufficiently prepare itself for the digital age, in a similar fashion to the journalism industry.

“I think that there’s a lot of skepticism on college campuses just like there was skepticism in newsrooms,” he said. “In some cases you want people teaching students to be skeptical. But at the same time that skepticism has led them to question almost everything that comes along that might actually help them do their jobs better, cut costs, or deliver their courses better.”

It is generally accepted that colleges and universities must find ways to reduce their costs and Selingo feels the answers are right in front of the noses of administrators.

“Colleges have added a lot of administrative layers over the last ten years and the question is whether all those people are really needed when you think about what the core operation of a college or university is.”

Further, he said pushing into the digital market is vital for higher education institutions.

“Colleges haven’t taken as much advantage as they can in using technology to improve course delivery. A typical class is taught face-to-face with one professor talking to students. Many of these lectures now can be delivered much better online. Professors could take on more work because a lot of the work that they used to do can now be handled by various pieces of software.”

Technology has the potential to incite a much deeper transition than we may currently envision, according to Selingo, and higher education institutions must not fear the change if they are to succeed.

“It could definitely be a deeper change than what we are witnessing now, just based on technology,” he said. “To use the publishing industry as an example, who would have thought fifteen years ago that people would be getting their daily news on a mobile phone? I don’t think we understood the depth of what would happen, and right now we might not see the depth of what might happen with change in higher education.”

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