Higher education is in a state of transition. What traditionally has been a stable part of Western society for so many years now must find ways to remain relevant in a time of expanding knowledge, changing societal values and increased questioning of authority figures.

Therefore, we at The Change Leader want to offer a series of columns to lay out where we believe higher education is going in the face of all of these challenges and what higher education leaders need to think about in moving forward. This first column looks at the purpose of higher education.

A Changing Mission

One of the major challenges facing higher education leaders is identifying what higher education’s purpose is now. For some schools, the mission has been offering undergraduate programs designed to prepare the next generation of white-collar workers. In other institutions, the focus is on preparing the next generation of scholars and creating cutting-edge knowledge.

However, in some cases, the long-held institutional mission is becoming muddled, e.g., regional institutions in Texas such as Tarleton State University in the Texas A&M system.  These and others that have  earned their reputations as centers for teaching excellence because they have focused primarily on helping students earn a degree and prepare for a career, in recent years, faculty at these institutions have been encouraged to use more of their time on research and publishing instead of just focusing on their teaching and advising students. We also see this occurring in Japan, where its government is planning to create world-class centers for basic research at regional universities, according to University World News. These centers are designed to strengthen international competitiveness and narrow the gap between the nation’s elite research institutions and regional universities.

In some ways this is understandable and can be fortuitous, as there are significant research $$$ that can help institutions’ bottom line, especially if these institutions are able to marry the increased emphasis on scholarship with their teaching to ensure that what happens in classrooms reflects current cutting-edge knowledge. However, there also is a risk of losing the quality of teaching and the focus on students if faculty members get wrapped up in the drive for publications and research. We believe it will be a tragic – and potentially devastating — loss if these institutions lose their brand equity of providing a quality education to undergraduates and master’s level students.

In comparison, it’s important for research universities to remain committed to teaching as well as research, especially since in some cases – such as state public institutions – these universities enroll a significant number of undergraduate students. In some cases, faculty members – especially those who are tenured — want to focus most of their time on their research interests. This focus can – but doesn’t have to be – detrimental to what happens in the classroom. In fact, a 2017 study out of Northwestern University found that faculty members can offer both brilliant scholarship and brilliant teaching. This is important to consider for two reasons:

  • Often tenure is heavily weighted toward research and less on teaching. While tenure historically has been used to protect faculty members when doing research, this practice now basically excludes teaching acumen from the equation.
  • It also isn’t fair to students to enroll in classes expecting the “name” professor to be teaching, only to find that the class will be led by a teaching assistant.

Community colleges are not immune from reinvention. These institutions increasingly are serving as the gateway for students to finish their early college coursework. In some cases, this coursework is completed when students are still in high school as part of early college high school programs, which cuts down on the time (and expense) to graduate at the degree-completion school. In addition, community colleges also are focused on offering classes devoted to workforce skills as well as retraining adults who need to professionally reposition themselves. There are downsides, however. For example, students attending early college high schools often are forced to sacrifice their participation in extracurricular activities, which allow them to explore their interests, learn to collaborate and develop leadership skills, and bond with their peer group.

Traditional higher education institutions also face intense competition from numerous sources such as for-profit colleges, MOOCs and organizational training programs. This competition can lead to significant pressure to make changes that can leave the institution facing an uphill battle on a very slippery slope. For instance, most for-profit institutions are focused more on the bottom line (in order to provide financial windfalls to their leaders and shareholders) than providing a quality of education, which can result in the quality of education declining.  How do they do this?  By cutting contact hours, relying more on low-paid adjunct faculty, and lowering the quality of instruction to produce more graduates.  In some ways, this is the higher education version of “puppy mills.” The question then becomes, “Who pays?” in these instances. In many ways, it is all of us – the students (who don’t receive a high-quality education for their money), traditional institutions of higher education (who are forced to lower their standards in order to attract students), employers (who may have to retrain their employees because of gaps in their education) and society at large.  However, there are upsides to these new forms of higher education, especially because of innovation. However, these institutions need to find a balance between innovation, profit and quality of education.

Changing Student Needs

In addition to the transitional nature of the institution, many institutions are seeing changes in what students need and want. Many students rightfully are looking for degrees that prepare them for jobs. The challenge becomes creating a degree program that won’t quickly go out of date in these rapidly changing times. In order to do that, higher education leaders and faculty members need to create close ties to their regional industries and employers so that changing technologies and processes as well as global economic trends can be integrated into the degree program in real time.

As it currently stands, faculty (generally) are responsible for developing curricula, but with their focus primarily on research, the foci of courses isn’t necessarily on the practical “what you need to know” but on more research-based approaches to subjects.  In some ways, this is good, but in many cases, it is out of touch with what is actually going on in the outside world.

For example, recent studies of employers say that a pure STEM curriculum does not produce the well-balanced employee that they need to fulfill jobs.  In some ways, this goes to the old adage of what the different levels of education should be  undergraduate trains people’s minds, graduate makes them a “expert” in a particular area, and doctoral responsibility is to bring new knowledge into existence).  Undergraduate education cannot lose the purpose of training young peoples’ minds to be able to think and grow, as there is no way that most universities can continuously update courses to reflect the latest technologies and learnings.

The changing world also requires institutions to find ways to help students learn how to collaborate at a high level instead of focusing on constant competition. And it will be critical that these students not only understand how to work in these ways but also to be able to lead diverse workgroups and organizations in a collaborative manner.

Yet another challenge is to help students learn to use critical thinking so they will be able to successfully navigate the changing times and develop into thoughtful citizens and lifelong learners. This can be problematic as liberal arts institutions – which offer a multi-disciplinary approach to learning — have fallen out of favor. Therefore, it’s important for higher education leaders to find ways to create these interdisciplinary types of offerings within career-focused degree programs.

Wrapping Up

All of these big picture threats to higher education leave many leaders and faculty longing for the good old days. However, those days are long gone. Instead, we need to embrace the excitement of the future – one that we can help mold and create a new type of institution, one in which we break the mold. Frankly, we at The Change Leader see a horizon of new and exciting opportunities opening up to leaders everywhere.