The Wall Street Journal and The Economist recently treated us to dueling perspectives on the value of higher education. The Wall Street Journal reported on a recent poll (in conjunction with NORC) revealing that 56% of Americans think a 4-year college degree is a bad bet—as recently as 2013, 53% had positive perceptions. The Economist retorted that this is not true for the average college graduate citing two perspectives which suggest that the return on the 4-year college degree remains strong. Who’s right? I suspect they both are. The key, like the devil, is in the details.
Challenges to the viability of the US higher education model have grown significantly during the last 5 years. Demographic change especially in the Northeast and the upper Midwest has resulted in enrollment declines that pose serious challenges to the viability of many small private and regional state-supported institutions. The price of obtaining a college degree along with mounting educational debt has caused many potential students and their parents to question the value of an undergraduate degree.
We have argued here and elsewhere that developing institutional consensus on a value proposition is critical to success. This consensus should drive both the assessment of current programming and the development of program growth. Competition in higher education, especially in New England and the Upper Midwest, is becoming intense; and institutions cannot afford to be just another generic (comprehensive) institution. Trying to be everything to everyone will ultimately put the institution in the position of competing based on price and convenience, and that is not a strategy that will allow the institution to thrive in the long run.
As educators, we often think of the flow of learning as from us outwards—to our students, to practitioners, etc. While this is no doubt often the case, it is not always so. Sometimes there are important lessons for us that emanate from our students and the world of practice. Two articles illustrating this point jumped out at us in last week’s business news.
The challenges facing higher education institutions are monumental. It is clear that academic business models are struggling to keep up with the enrollment declines and cost escalations that have resulted in severe financial pressures. The global pandemic has just made underlying cracks in the models into crevasses.