Top Three Challenges Facing Higher Ed Today

Someone recently asked me what I thought the top three challenges facing Higher Ed institutions today might be. "Only three?", I thought to myself. Everyone can come up with a different set of three, but here are mine.

1. Financial Survival - in an ever more competitive world of low cost education opportunities, how can traditional Higher Ed institutions survive and attract enough students to not just meet budget, but to build financial reserves for future programs, maintenance of operations, and growth of the institution? Most institutions, definitely private and increasingly more so in public, rely heavily on tuition revenue. Many have large endowments as well, but typically those endowments are not used for supporting the operation, salaries of professional staff, or other essential services that are considered the norm on today's campuses. As competitors like Google look to break into the higher ed market, and become accredited themselves, what will be the compelling reason for a traditional institution to continue to exist? Simply relying on the legacy customer base or some assumed attraction of an altruistic "mission" will not be enough. Today's students are looking for value and excellence in combination. It will be difficult to convince someone to invest more than a quarter million $ in a private college education unless there is a clear ROI that can at least equal what will soon be delivered in a virtual environment by the Googles and Amazons of the world.

2. Adapting to Rapid Change - academics are not known for their willingness or ability to quickly adapt to societal, economic, or political change. Most academic employees on college campuses today came of age in a far more protective world, and have come to expect that to remain in place forever. The notion that new programs need to be developed constantly and tested as they're being built on new markets is a difficult and foreign concept to this group. To make matters worse, generally senior leadership of traditional institutions are drawn from the very academic population that is so resistant to change. Tenure, faculty governance, and a myriad of other structures stand in the way of rapid change adaptation. Often rapid change involves expansion of the use of technology. The thought of online programs and automation frighten many, but most certainly are perceived as a threat to the traditional faculty / academic power structure. This has to change. We need more faculty who can embrace change, who understand the power of technology in delivering an improved education, and who are not afraid to try new things constantly. What worked one year may be old hat by the next. It's a brave new world, and the institutions that will survive and prosper will be those that have an engaged and adaptable faculty supported by a leadership team of like mind.

3. Embracing the Digital Age - this may seem similar to point (2) above, but it goes much further. The students who are coming to college campuses these days are "digital natives". We've all heard the term. In fact, most faculty understand the term. But, yet many faculty still forbid the use of electronic devices in the classroom whether that be laptops, mobile devices, whatever. They're concerned that the students are browsing the net and not paying attention to the lecture. Maybe what needs to change is not the students, but the faculty person's perspective on technology. Rather than see it as an impediment to learning, it would be better to embrace it, to use it, to incorporate it, and to fully integrate it into every aspect of learning in and out of the classroom. The world is only going to become more technology dependent in the future. Wouldn't it be wonderful if graduates of institutions of higher learning came out with a degree AND a full appreciation of how technology can be used in positive ways to enhance learning, job performance, and life in general? This will never happen until both the leadership and faculty of higher ed institutions embrace the digital age with loving arms instead of trying to hold it off at arm's length for as long as possible!

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