Monday, April 1, 2013

The Accelerating Rate of Change in Higher Education

A few years ago, I wrote a piece for this blog titled, “Rate of Change and Predicting Which Institutions Will Thrive in the Future.”  You can find it at

The post was based on a quote from Jack Welch:  “I’ve always believed that when the rate of change inside an institution becomes slower than the rate of change outside, the end is in sight.”  Sobering words, but the logic is compelling.  Over and over again, we have seen that established organizations in a wide range of industries lose out to more innovative, nimble organizations with an idea that disrupted the status quo.

I am revisiting this topic, because the rate of change in higher education clearly accelerated in recent months.  The stories are stunning, as the availability of MOOCs and other online options are expanding.  The emergence of “free” courses has rapidly spawned remarkably low-cost options to turn those non-credit experiences into credit-bearing courses; we see more interest than ever in credit for prior learning; and we see a move toward awarding credit and degrees that are based on competencies, rather than on completed coursework.

I could go on, but I no longer have any doubt that higher education will forever be changed.  As I’ve written before, the problem for most institutions is that their traditional, residential programs inevitably lose money, in large part because of the nearly insane competition to expand amenities.  However, if you want to see real confusion about the challenge of serving traditional audiences, while encouraging innovation and attracting new audiences, look at state-level policy makers and boards of trustees.

Here’s the rub:  The institutional financial engine requires increased income from non-residential audiences.  I believe those audiences will be drawn to online or branch campus-based hybrid programs.  Unfortunately for the institution, those students will have excellent options to meet their needs that will be very low cost.  Established institutions will find it difficult to charge enough tuition to meet their broader financial needs, unless they have a very special brand.

We don’t know yet just which of the emerging options will be most attractive to students.  For myself, I wonder exactly how the psychology of going to school will interact with the efficiency and cost advantages of technology-driven choices.  How will students combine various modes of delivery and learning to create what may well become customized lifelong learning portfolios?

I anticipate that students will chose different delivery modes for different purposes and topics, depending on their strengths, interests, and life circumstances.  Degrees may actually become less important than building a portfolio of competencies, although adult learners may aggregate such competencies, add some missing pieces, and eventually claim their diploma.

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