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Higher Ed, From Static to Dynamic

November 17, 2021

The following is from Inside Higher Ed

Businesses are accustomed to changes in the marketplace: the demographics of customers and clients change through time. Products and services are constantly under scrutiny to ensure that they are finely tuned to the needs and desires of the marketplace. Efficiency, effectiveness and cost savings are encouraged and rewarded among employees and managers. Innovation tapping the newest technologies and techniques are integral to the research and development process. Surveys and focus groups are employed constantly to assess products and services matched to the customer.

Higher education, on the other hand, over the past decades has become too comfortable in serving an unchanging market with a largely unchanging product, year after year, decade after decade. Other than gross number analysis, many colleges previously did not take a deep dive into demographics of students every semester to detect and adapt to subtle changes in other than the broadest terms. This is especially the case for comparison to competitors that are not degree-granting, such as code academies, Google, Amazon, LinkedIn and others. Curriculum and degree/certificate offerings had not been reviewed every semester to determine how directly they serve the dual customer base of employers and students. Reviews were not always coupled with a serious solicitation of recommendations from the dual audiences.

Equally important to the practices above is how quickly and effectively changes are implemented based on the findings. Stasis in this time means decline. An environment of static stability too often is the norm rather than dynamic responsiveness and growth. By the time some changes make it through the process of changing curricula, colleges and departments, the market has further changed.

The enrollment decline since the start of the pandemic is one of the most dramatic in history. The latest preliminary results from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center show that the number of undergraduate students will likely drop 3.2 percent in the current academic year. All this after losing 3.4 percent last year. Over all, accounting for 6.6 percent fewer undergraduates than prior to the COVID pandemic, online institutions saw a similar dip of 5.5 percent. However, those online institutions are faring better, after seeing an increase of 8.6 percent enrollment in the fall 2020 semester. With the recent dip in enrollment, it is clear young adults increasingly are choosing work over college.

As a result, we see startling data on student enrollments. For example, fewer than half of all high schoolers want to go to a four-year college. CNBC reports, “A recent survey of high school students found that the likelihood of attending a four-year school sank more than 20% in the last year and a half—down to 48%, from 71%, according to ECMC Group, a nonprofit aimed at helping students find success.” The number of African American students declined at an accelerating rate. There is no guarantee that these trends will improve when the COVID pandemic finally subsides.

The gender balance of the college student population has shifted dramatically over the decades from a 12-percentage-point lead in the number of male students to now a nearly 20-percentage-point lead by female students, with only 41 percent of undergraduate students self-identified as males.

Not only are the numbers of male students enrolled on the decline, but the numbers of male dropouts exceed those of female students. As Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic, there are serious and pervasive societal impacts that await us if we are unable to stabilize the gender tilt in learning. The double-digit advantage in numbers of males completing college was harmful in years gone by, adding fuel to the disparity in wages as well as underrepresentation of women in leadership roles. The even larger gap—this time favoring female numbers—continues to grow with unknown consequences.

The pendulum, swinging even further this time, may bring about changes that we are yet unable to predict in our society. Most assuredly, though, less education for any segment of our society—whether it be gender, race, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation or any other characteristic—is not a good thing. An important aspect of higher education’s social compact is to strive to spread learning to everyone, everywhere.

Even in this emerging age of the fourth industrial revolution, change is the constant as the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus cautioned us some 2,500 years ago. He concluded that “nature is change. Like a river, nature flows ever onwards. Even the nature of the flow changes.”

Implicit in Heraclitus’s wisdom is that we must adapt to change. That is the key for colleges and universities today. This is not the society of half a century ago. Needs and desires have changed since the 1970s for the two groups we most directly serve: the students and the employers. Our field cannot be uniquely static in a world of change. We must take these changes into account and dynamically respond with new modules, courses, programs, certifications and degrees, all at more affordable price points, if we have a hope of reclaiming the number of enrollments and the respect of employers that we once had.

Is your institution collecting deep and clear data on not only the changes that have taken place, but what has motivated those changes? My readings are that there is a shift from a primary need to serve a traditional on-campus freshman cohort to serve the learning needs of upskilling, reskilling and leadership competencies that we see growing in our society. Given that base, is your institution implementing responsive changes that promise to turn around the old models in time to advance your standing? If these are not happening, or not happening quickly enough, you may be well served to begin looking at other places of employment—or careers—that can best use your abilities to help move from the static to the dynamic, thereby advancing the institution.

By Ray Schroeder, a UPCEA senior fellow and professor emeritus at University of Illinois Springfield.

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