The Chancellor’s Desk: New Challenges to Higher Education

March 12, 2013 | CUNY Matters, The University

From funding shifts to student demographics to new technologies, public higher education is changing quickly and dramatically. For universities willing to examine their operations and experiment with new ideas, this is a time of great opportunity. If universities want to evolve, they must be more responsive — to students, to government, to business.

  • We need to pick up on cues from potential students — the generation that has always lived in cyberspace, that has known women as secretary of state, that thinks gene therapy has always been available. How can we best engage them in learning?
  • Government and private funders are demanding accountability and data-driven assessment. Institutions must be able to gather and use data in sophisticated ways in order to demonstrate student success.
  • Universities also need to seek advice and direction from companies whose employment needs can shape the direction of curricular innovation. The new Cornell NYC Tech institution in New York City, for example, is based in part on the idea that many ideas originate in the market, rather than in the university — so its programs are highly connected to business and industry.

Just as we must listen to our external constituencies, we must also embrace change within our institutional operations. A sense of urgency must motivate our work. Opportunity costs are high and unions, governance leaders, faculty and administrators will have to find common ground to address some new realities.

Our colleague George Mehaffy at AASCU [American Association of State Colleges and Universities] has pointed to a couple of key trends:

  • The rate of tuition increases is unsustainable. Between 1998 and 2008, the Consumer Price Index increased by 75 percent, while tuition for public four-year institutions rose by 325 percent. Many students assume a level of debt that they will have difficulty retiring.
  • Institutions generally spend more on graduate education than on lower-division courses, which often provide more revenue. But as increasing numbers of first-year students come to college less and less prepared, universities must devote more resources to supporting student readiness.
  • MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and other alternative delivery models — whether online degrees or hybrid courses — have the potential to change traditional instructional, financing and assessment models. Eventually, an institution may determine the curricula, governance and pricing to offer an entire degree through the existing menu of MOOCs. But more research will be needed before we know whether demand will result in a tectonic shift in content delivery.

MOOCs aside, what are students actually learning in college? Are they gaining the advanced skills they need through our current modes of instruction?

  • Faculty are changing, too. In 2009, part-time faculty comprised almost half of all faculty in degree-granting institutions — the highest percentage since 1970. However, the quality-assurance measures in place for full-time faculty are not as robust for part-timers.
  • Our student body is also different. More students are finishing their education at a college or university different from the one at which they started. And more are part-time, adult learner and dual enrollment students. Institutions must account for student mobility while still providing the co-curricular activities many students need.
  • In addition, what does “shared governance” mean in an era of financial and technological change? It is clear that faculty must have a substantial role in the academic governance of a university. However, there will continue to be considerable disagreement as to the exact contours of that role. Where does the impetus for change originate? How does an institution remain nimble within a traditionally rigid governance framework?
  • Finally, how will we finance higher education going forward? Government support is declining, even as enrollment has increased, and the financial burden is increasingly placed on students. A recent Moody’s report suggests that universities will have to lower their cost structures through technology, operational efficiency, and new markets. We must create new models for supporting higher education and maintaining access.

In a time of transition, higher education has an opportunity to reassess, reimagine, and rejuvenate its operations. If we embrace this time of change, we can ensure that universities can prepare a new generation of graduates ready to lead a new and very different 21st century world.