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Charting a New Frontier for Colleges and Universities

by | Feb 25, 2011 | Business Trends

Thomas Frey Futurist Speaker charting a new frontier for colleges and universities

The great reset has not yet finished its resetting process, and colleges are moving quickly into the crosshairs, with government funding, grants, and student loans all harder to get.

With a mindset steeped in tradition, college leadership is pushing institutions to be, as the U.S. Marines like to say, “the best they can possibly be.”

But being the “best” is meaningless when the rest of the world wants “different.”

At the heart of the matter is an expensive academic infrastructure that is woefully out of sync with the business environment it is preparing students for. For decades, colleges have grown from simple to ultra-complex organisms funded by easy-to-get student loans, propped up by state and federal tax money, tons of grants, scholarships, and other forms of support.

Where most of the business world has spent decades learning how to “do more with less,” colleges have been content to simply do “more with more.” But the money train is coming to a screeching halt, and college officials are spending their days watching the financial cliff draw ever so closer.

While some may see at this as the end of the great college era, it is, in reality, the beginning of an entirely new opportunity. Over the coming years we will be witnessing the grand transformation of colleges and universities. Here are some of the changes they will need to make to survive.

So What’s Changed

The obvious question to start with is simply, “What’s changed?”

Why is it that an education system that has produced some of the world’s top scientists, engineers, and business executive is no longer good enough to serve today’s young people?

The answers can be found in the following five areas:

  1. From Information Poor to Information Rich
  2. Fierce Competition
  3. The Cost to Benefit Ratio is Changing
  4. New Times Require New Intelligence
  5. Shift from Individual Intelligence to Group Intelligence

The following are but a few of the reasons why changing times demand different solutions.

From Information Poor to Information Rich

In 2008, Roger Bohn and James Short, two researchers at the University of California in San Diego decided to do a study to determine how much information people have entering their brains on a daily basis.

Everyone today is being exposed to vast amounts of information, and their study was intended to quantify the amount of information we are all being immersed in.

But they added a rather interesting twist to the study. Because of the varying forms of information, and the difficulty in comparing video to magazines and newspapers, they decided to convert all information into one standard form of measurement – words.

Based on their final 2009 report, the average person in the U.S. has 100,500 words flowing into their heads on a daily basis. And this number is increasing by 2.6% per year.

So where are all these words coming from?  In rough terms, 41% come from watching television, 27% – computers, 11% – radio, 9% – print media, 6% – telephone conversations, and smaller amounts from recorded music, movies, games, and other information sources.

As it turns out, the average American spends 11.8 hours every day consuming information. Many other countries are posting similar numbers. People today are being exposed to far more information than ever in the past.

Buried deep within the “other category,” constituting far less than 1% is our formal education. Even for students attending college, their classroom studies constitute a relatively small percentage of the information they are exposed to on a daily basis.

Colleges have yet to come to grips with the fact that they are not the only ones who possess the information.

Fierce Competition

Colleges are not only competing with each other for students, they are also competing for dollars and many of the dollar-streams are drying up.

National and local tax dollars are now at a premium and arguments that worked on decision-makers in the past are becoming far tougher to sell.

As a general rule of thumb, people are willing to pay more to get more. Other than some minor adjustments for inflation, they are not willing to pay more to get the same. And they are far from willing to fund the status quo when the rest of the world is getting more for less.

Business and industry is constantly being forced into “doing more for less.” Where many colleges have built their brand around exclusivity and other barriers to entry, there will be fewer students willing to “play by the old rules” in the future.

The Cost-to-Benefit Ratio is Changing

Over the past 30 years, college tuition and fees have risen roughly 450% compared to increases in median family income of only 150%. Accelerating at three-time the rate of inflation, the cost of college has now reached a breaking point.

Yes, for the independently wealthy and those in the higher income brackets, college may still be an acceptable investment. However, for any who are using student loans and going into debt, it becomes a far more difficult cost to rationalize.

Over the next few years a number of low-cost, high-value alternatives will begin to emerge, forcing virtually every traditional college to rethink their existing pricing structure.

New Times Require New Intelligence

In 1981, Professor James Flynn, a psychologist in the University of Otago in New Zealand, produced a study that showed IQ tests were improving over the years. This revelation has become known as the Flynn Effect.

He concluded that our ancestors would do poorly on IQ tests today because they deal with the workings of the current world — a world largely defined by science. The average IQ score has risen approximately three points every decade in the U.S.

This doesn’t mean our ancestors were not very bright. Rather, different times require different intelligences and our ancestors were adept at the kind intelligence needed to adapt to the times they lived in.

IQ tests are also a measure of a person’s ability to cope with the education system they are immersed in.

As the world around us changes, our need for new kinds of intelligence also changes. Education systems that produced stellar results 50 years ago are poorly suited for the diverse, rapidly evolving intelligences needed to thrive in today’s world.

Shift from Individual Intelligence to Group Intelligence

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “The Tipping Point,” explained how cultural, social, and economic factors converge to create trends in consumer behavior. Later James Surowiecki, wrote “The Wisdom of Crowds” to explain how group intelligence could be used to benefit mankind.

A popular example of group intelligence has been the TV game show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Contestants are asked questions from history and popular culture, and when stumped, allowed to query the audience. When audience members are polled for answers during the show, they are correct 91% of the time.

Modern academic fields such as marketing and behavioral finance draw upon group intelligence data to identify and predict the rational and irrational behavior of buyers and investors.

While many in academia are still stuck in the paradigm that every person needs to know every detail themselves, our fluid communication systems enable us to tap into answers “at the speed of need” and the combined thinking of groups is far superior to the lone individual.

Group intelligence helps eliminate “weakest link” problems with an emerging workforce that is able to adapt to whatever situation we find ourselves in.

Old world academia was built around snapshots of intelligence, with each one creating another block in the foundational base of modern thought. With the rate of these snapshots increasing exponentially, we can now witness the strobe light effect of shifting intelligence transforming into a full motion picture of real-time brilliance.

Helping Colleges Survive

Colleges are being pushed in a number of directions but the big dividing points will be oriented around in-person vs. online, and for the in-person side of the equation, doing the things in-person that cannot be done through online education.

1.) Lower Pricing for Online Education. Online education can be delivered far more efficiently than using a dedicated classroom to coordinate time and location schedules for all those involved. Over time online education will become well-designed commodities that can be delivered far beyond the walls of a single university. The lower cost of online education will then be used to offset the cost of the on-campus experience. In many situations, students will be allowed to select the ratio of online vs. in-person classes to give them better control of the costs. As this transition takes place, individual tuition cost will begin to decline, but overall student populations will begin to expand.

2.) Classroom Shift – From Lectures and Tests to Group Experiences. As colleges begin to wrap their mind around “doing the things in-person that cannot be done through online education,” existing campuses will transition into interactive experiential learning centers. Students today tend to resent the one-way flow of information. They no longer wish to be “lectured to.” They want to participate. A whole new generation of tools and equipment are being designed to shift people from mere “absorbers of information” to full-blown “experience participants.”

3.) Group Experiences – Relationship-Building. One of the greatest values of the college experience is the life-long relationships that develop in the campus setting. This benefit is lost with most online education systems. Social networks allow students to form “weak relationships” with people around the world, and weak relationships have their own advantages. But working and living side-by-side with people is the foundation for “strong relationships” with far greater degrees of interest and caring. Strong relationships remain the foundational underpinnings of business communities, and colleges serve as an ideal Petri dish for new relationships to germinate and blossom.

4.) Closing the Gap between Experts and Students. Education has traditionally consisted of the two fundamental elements of teaching and learning, with a heavy emphasis on teaching. Throughout history, the transfer of information from the teacher to the learner has been done on a person-to-person basis, with a teacher lecturing to a group of students. This approach, however, requires the teacher to be an expert on every topic that they teach, and great inefficiencies lie in the slow and painful process of creating new experts. Modern communication systems enable students to eliminate the teachers in the middle, and learn directly from the experts. As an example, a scientist that makes a breakthrough can now broadcast their findings directly to students around the world.

5.) Transition to One-Hour Learning Modules. With the pace of society ratcheting faster every year, fewer and fewer people find themselves able to schedule their time around a class that meets 3 times a week for the next 12 weeks. Many students are lost because they are not able to mesh their schedule with the archaic you-need-to-adapt-to-our-schedule attitude of colleges. Colleges that organize their offerings around flexible one-hour learning modules will have a far easier time attracting students. Some learning experiences may involve a grouping of 2, 5, or even 10 units, but the majority will transition towards a basic one-hour learning modules. One-hour units will then be combined to form traditional college credits.

6.) Hyper-Individualized Learning Systems. Learning what we want, when we want it – shifting away from a prescribed course agendas to ones that are hyper-individualized, self-selected, and scheduled at times that sync well with the student will dramatically change levels of motivation and participation. Since each student comes with their own unique mixture of skills, desires, and preferences, the sooner a student can focus in on the traits and talents they excel at, the quicker they will be able to find a meaningful direction for themselves.

7.) College-Level Learning Camps. Many kinds of learning camps are already in existence, but we will see an explosive growth in college-based camps oriented around personal experiences. Marine biology is best learned through working with marine life in all its many forms. The best way to learn history is to travel to the battlefields, take tours of the castles, walk through the ancient ruins, dress up in the ancient clothing, and sleep overnight in a wigwam or cliff dwelling. The best way to become a plumber is to work with a skilled plumber and perform hands-on work fixing real world problems. Learning camps, ranging from one-day camps to multi-week camps, will begin to proliferate around specific topics. Some camps will be more academic-related areas of study such as math and science, while others will deal with more skill-related topics like woodworking or auto repair. Each camp will have its own identity, use its own in-house experts, and will focus on a specific learning experience.

8.) An Era of Constant Experimentation – In the end, colleges will need to enter an era of constant experimentation. The steady shifting of technologies, attitudes, and lifestyles demand a symbiotic relationship be formed between colleges and their students. And this will never be a static relationship.

Final Thoughts

Headlines around the world are painting a grim picture ahead for higher education. It doesn’t take bionic ears to hear the moans of anxiety emanating from college boardrooms as they not only wrestle with declining revenue streams, but also a shift in demand for higher ed.

Here are a few of the more recent headlines:

  • “Default rate for repayment of for-profit college loans hits 25 percent” – Washington Post – Feb 11, 2011
  • “Declining by degree: Will America’s universities go the way of its car companies?” – The Economist – Sept 2, 2010
  • “Once the Leader, U.S. Drops to 12th in College Degrees” – New York Times – July 23, 2010
  • “Placing the Blame as Students Are Buried in Debt” – New York Times – May 10, 2010
  • “Why Did 17 Million Students Go to College?” – The Chronicle of Higher Education – Oct 20, 2010
  • “There Are 5,000 Janitors in the U.S. with PhDs” – Gizmodo – Oct 22, 2010
  • “The Ivory Tower is Headed for a Fall” – ColoradoBiz – July 19, 2010

The last headline is an article I wrote that includes many other statistics and indicators.

As the same time though, the stage is being set for many new opportunities, and these new opportunities will pave the way for a few visionary leaders to emerge, and an entire new era of next generation academia to explode around us.

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