Higher ed must change or die (opinion)

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In 2011, then Nokia CEO Stephen Elop delivered a poignant and passionate memo to all of the company’s employees. There was no sugarcoating the overarching theme of the sincere but somber and grimly characterized 1,227-word message.

Nokia was “standing on a burning platform.” The reference—to an oil rig explosion and one worker’s choice to either remain on the fiery precipice or jump almost 100 feet into the icy North Sea—illustrated Nokia’s dire future. If the company did not urgently adapt and reclaim its role as a leader in telecommunications and information technology innovation, it risked losing everything.

Sound familiar? Let’s examine the higher education industry in 2022.

I am the president of Pennsylvania’s second-largest institution of higher education. Temple University is a public, R-1 research university in a major East Coast city with a medical school and health system. Our research portfolio has more than tripled in the last decade. You would think all of these key distinctions would help me rest easy at night. That has not been the case as of late.

I do not take the role as president of Philadelphia’s public university lightly, and I recognize the weight of my words. So, let me be crystal clear with what I am about to state next. In the goodness of transparency, please know that I hope that every university and college president and administrator, across the country, sees this op-ed as my version of a burning platform memo.

Enrollment for both undergraduate and graduate students at U.S. colleges and universities decreased by 4.1 percent—or about 685,000 students—in spring 2022 compared to spring 2021. The number is compounded even further when you go back to 2020. The overall two-year decline is 7.4 percent, meaning that nearly 1.3 million fewer students are pursuing postsecondary education today compared to just two years ago.

COVID-19 was a factor, and the demographic shift is very real. But make no mistake: instigating factors are more than that. The value of the college degree, in my analysis, has reached its peak and is on the wane. There are a host of factors to blame, stretching from cost and affordability to curriculum relevance to rapidly evolving skill needs to advances in automation and technology. But playing the blame game only gets us so far.

Imagine if a company lost nearly 10 percent of its profits in two years. The situation would be catastrophic. Drastic changes would be expected. We have lost nearly 10 percent of our students, but where is our sense of urgency? What will it take for us to recognize that the status quo is not working?

The evolution of education can be broken down into four phases: agrarian (1600–1849), when a privileged few had formal education; industrial (1850–1974), which introduced universal secondary education; knowledge (1975–2009), when the internet transformed life, education and work; and post-recession (2010–2020), where the value of a degree has never been more in question. And now, we must collectively determine what comes next.

I have an inkling as to where we’re headed. In 2017, while serving as dean of Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies, I noticed a startling trend. Top employers in the New York City metropolitan area were no longer recruiting our undergraduate and graduate students with the same vigor and frequency. Rather, they were after students in Columbia University’s high school program.

I interviewed several employers for my new book, The College Devaluation Crisis: Market Disruption, Diminishing ROI, and an Alternative Future of Learning (Stanford University Press) When I probed them as to why they were hiring students straight from high school, I was told that “the college degree had ceased to be a guarantee that employers were going to get what they wanted.” So instead, why not go younger? Why not hire cheaper?

On the surface, it makes sense. Who needs a four-year marketing degree graduate to run social media when you can instead hire someone fresh out of high school and sign them up for HootSuite’s Academy’s social media certification course? Why pay for a six-figure education when HootSuite can get you some of the same skills in just six hours and for less than $200?

We all know that a $200 certificate program does not remotely equate to a four-year education from a best-in-class institution like Temple University, but perception is everything. And the reality is that the perceived value proposition that was once a constant for institutions of higher education becomes cloudier day by day, with just six in 10 Americans recently surveyed saying college is worth the time and money.

I am a fourth-generation descendent of slaves, and no one has to sell me on the value of a college degree. This has been instilled in me by the entire Wingard family, which includes five family members who received their bachelor’s degrees, five who received their master’s degrees and three who received their doctorates. But, despite this, I truly do worry that we are standing on a burning platform.

At one point, a college education was seen as the ticket to career success and advancement, but we live in a capitalist society, and we know what happens when money is at stake.

The key to retaining the value of a degree from your own institution is ensuring your graduates have the skills to change with any market. This means that we must tweak and adapt our curriculum at least every single year.

We also must get back to basics. We are at our best when we promote discourse and the scholarly exchange of ideas. Companies deeply need high-level critical thinking skills that will never coalesce from a $200 online certificate program. This gets back to the importance of adapting curriculum on a yearly basis and, when doing so, specifically looking at our core curriculum with a fine-tooth comb.

Finally, and arguably most importantly, we need to address affordability. Not politicians, but us—leaders at institutions of higher education. Rutgers University’s Scarlet Guarantee program, which offers free in-state tuition for families that make less than $65,000, is a step in the right direction. But keep in mind that just 23 percent of four-year public colleges are affordable for a student with an average-sized Pell Grant, according to the National College Attainment Network’s analysis; do you think that number will go up or down in the years to come?

We need to broaden access, leverage our industry and corporate partnerships to create scholarships and funding sources, and pursue entrepreneurial investments that seek to incubate alternative ventures. This is nonnegotiable; this is our only path forward.

Solving the challenges ahead will not be easy. But it’s past time for higher education to ignore the flames and take the leap. It sure beats the alternative. Only then will the heat of this burning platform start to subside.

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