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Q&A: Why higher education is getting left behind

Q&A: Why higher education is getting left behind

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Higher education in the United States may need to dramatically change its business model and finally embrace the new era of online learning.

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With more than a trillion dollars in outstanding student debt in the U.S. and ever-increasing tuition costs some feel it's time for higher education to make significant changes. Apart from the financial burdens, there is pressure for academe to embrace the new domain of online learning, which is rapidly gaining ground.

Jeffrey Selingo is the vice president and editorial director at the Chronicle for Higher Education, and is currently working on a book about the future of higher education in the U.S. He feels that academic institutions failed to foresee the economic and technological disruption that swept nearly every other industry between 1999 and 2009. And now schools forced to face the outcome: Financially-needy students who learn in entirely new ways because of technology and the adoption of mobile devices.

Will universities and colleges want to meet the challenge and embrace an overhaul of a very conservative system? SmartPlanet spoke with Selingo about what happened in the last decade, what may be required in the coming decades. Specifically we discussed the new business of online academic structures that signal one possible future for schools.

SmartPlanet: You’ve said, “University leaders desperately need to transform how colleges do business.” And that higher education has “lost a decade,” specifically the years between 1999 to 2009. Can you explain what you mean by lost a decade?

Jeffrey Selingo: Between 1999 and 2009 there was a huge run-up in the number of students participating in higher education. This was fueled by a boom in the number of eighteen to twenty-four-year-olds in the population at that point.

Also, 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.

Schools had huge demand and they were able to raise their prices without much complaint. Then they were able to add more buildings, more dorms, more recreation centers, you name it.

SP: So they were more focused on the immediate gain that they’d get from all these newer degrees and influx of students.

JS: My argument is that they should have used that ten-year period to set themselves up for what was coming ahead. And 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.

SP: But there was a period of success and increase in revenue?

JS: I think that it follows a playbook that’s used in almost every industry. Almost every industry that has gone through massive change: The automobile industry, the publishing industry, the music industry, all of them had this period of immense success right before they underwent this change.

SP: When you say this change, are you referring to digital change, or just any major shift in the economy or business structure?

JS: When I say change I mean a deflection, where there are other forces bearing down. In the case of higher education that includes government, financial, and technology.

SP: You’ve mentioned that in 2003 only two colleges charged more than $40,000 a year for tuition, fees, and room and board, and by 2009 224 charged more than that. Why is this happening? Is this a global trend?

JS: No. This is largely because of the way American universities are financed. On the private side, the reason why some university costs have gone up so much is that they discount tuition.

That discount is paid for in some part by the large number of students paying full price. But they up their list price enough to pay themselves back by those students who are getting a discount.

SP: What about the public schools?

JS: On the public side there’s also some discounting, but the bigger issue there is that states used to pay more than fifty percent of the cost through taxpayer dollars. Today that’s down to under ten percent for some schools. Today, more of the cost of education at public universities is being born by the students.

SP: What are some of the ways schools could lower costs?

JS: There’s a couple of things. One, is that “people costs” are the biggest piece of the equation at any university or college. 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.

Number two, 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.

SP: Do you think that universities have missed the digital age in a similar way that the journalism and music industries have?

JS: Yes I believe they have. I think that there’s a lot of skepticism on college campuses just like there was skepticism in newsrooms. I’ve really come to believe that journalists and faculty members are cut from the same cloth.

SP: That’s an interesting observation.

JS: They’re both are very smart but they have a very cynical view of the world.

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.

Many in higher education say online education is not as good as face-to-face education. But the research shows that student perform better in some online courses. In other cases a blended format works better, meaning that some of the course is face-to-face and some of it is online.

SP: It surprises me that students do better with online courses.

JS: In some cases it’s better, but in most cases it’s just as good. The idea that you are lowering quality is just not true. It’s been proven over and over again.

Some people just don’t want to believe it. This is very similar to what happened in the publishing industry ten or fifteen years ago where people didn’t want to believe that readers would want to get their information on a laptop, on a computer, on a tablet.

SP: Can you tell us about Coursera?

JS: Coursera is part of a new group of elite universities who are getting into the business of giving away their courses for free. Coursera, Udacity, and Ed-X are all new entities that have been formed over the last year that have some form of elite universities connected to them, like Harvard, MIT, Stamford, Penn, Michigan, where they are giving away their course content for free.

SP: How can they just give it away?

JS: First of all these courses have already been developed and taught, but they’re not giving away a credential with the online course. And right now that is the big question.

If they start giving away a credential, what form will it take? If they start giving away some sort of credential that’s trusted by the marketplace—meaning employers—that could disrupt severely the current business model of colleges and universities.

It could also disrupt their own model, but the good thing that all these universities can fill their freshman class with high quality students ten times over because they get so many applicants.

SP: The fact that it could also disrupt their own model seems dangerous. If nothing else it might diminish their brand. Why would they jeopardize themselves?

JS: There will always a market for elite, face-to-face education. The only people offering free courses right now are the people who are most confident that their business model will always survive.

These elite universities who reject nine out of ten applicants. With that much demand, they know that they can offer these free courses.

SP: What about the New Paradigm Model, which is an online model of courses that you seem to speak highly about.

JS: That model essentially allows the economies of scale. The problem is we have four thousand institutions in this country. Some of them are really small, they enroll a thousand, fifteen hundred students.

And they have to have a full compliment of courses. In some cases they’re isolated. So what the New Paradigm Initiative is doing is they have sixteen very similar colleges and they say, “Okay, we think we should have a major in Arabic.” And most of these sixteen colleges cannot support an Arabic major on their own.

So they’re basically saying, “Okay, this school will have the Arabic major and they’ll hire the professors. And then these other schools will have these smart classrooms.” We would go into a classroom at a specific time, just like we were going to a class on campus, and take this Arabic class from this professor on these other campuses.

Distance education like this has been going on for generations, the key here is that the technology has improved drastically. And these smart classrooms are in real time and you’re having real interaction with the physical professor who might be a couple hundred miles away.

SP: This is about as close as online learning can get to real classes.

JS: Yes, this is a synchronous class.

SP: One of the big criticisms is that teaching depends on real-time dialog. Otherwise you’re just looking at a screen with a lecture.

JS: Yes, exactly.

SP: What is the current state of undergraduate education?

JS: Not very good. I think that we’ve seen this in a number of places. But there was a big book that came out called Academic Plagiarist a couple of years ago that found that a third of undergraduates are really not learning much over the course of their undergraduate career.

SP: What does “not learning much” mean?

JS: The authors, who are social scientists, gave 2500 students a collegiate learning assessment which is a national test of critical thinking skills used by a lot of universities. They gave it to them when the walked in the door their freshman year, and they gave it to them after their sophomore year, and in their senior year.

They found that a third of the students had no gains on this test between their freshman year and senior year. They also found that students who took courses that didn’t require a lot of reading or writing did worse on these tests. Students in certain majors, particularly education, business and social work did more poorly on these tests than other students did. Students who worked on group projects a lot didn’t do as well. They also found that faculty engagement was really important.

SP: So, were you would you agree with most of their findings?

JS: It comes back to the idea of engagement in the classroom. Today students are learning in new and different ways. A lot of the current ways of teaching have not kept up.

SP: How are they learning in new and different ways?

JS: They’re using technology. Colleges and universities in their desire to say, “Well, we know best,” are saying that we’re not going to go along with what’s happening out there and how students are learning.

SP: You’ve said, “Change never happens as quickly as we predict, but it usually is more widespread than we imagine.” Do you think change in higher education will be widespread?

JS: We always underestimate how long this period of change will be. It’s probably going to be ten years before we see real change. The other thing that we tend to underestimate is the depth of change. It could definitely be a deeper change than what we are witnessing now, just based on technology.

Again, 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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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure