The Changing Higher Education Landscape

describe the image There is an ever expanding list of reports and commentary questioning the value of higher education, and its relevance to today’s student and workforce realities.  A week doesn’t go by without a newspaper or magazine article, or blog post with a title such as:  Is College Worth It?  or  How to Save Universities.  The basic critique: college is too expensive and long—and carries a heavy debt burden—for students who for the most part either dropout or graduate with few job prospects.

Now we are moving quickly past the rhetoric to concrete actions. Last week, the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation announced $9 million in funding to support ‘Breakthrough Education Models’ – with an emphasis on promoting faster, low or no-cost online college degree and professional programs.  Earlier this spring, MIT and Harvard launched edX , a $60 million initiative to offer open source online courses, where students can earn ‘Certificates of Mastery’ in certain content areas.  Moreover, non-degree certificate programs are the fastest growing segment of the higher education market.

So what does all this mean for higher education?  Colleges and universities that do not rapidly diversify, offering a range of both online learning options and professionally oriented, non-degree certificate or “badge” programs are at risk.  Their viability and market share will shrink, as they ferociously compete for the pool of traditional, young adult (often wealthier) students who still pursue a certain product: undergraduate and graduate degrees.   In many ways, higher education is undergoing a similar rude-awakening that confronted the music industry in the 1990s—and now the print media industry—with the advent of online technology.

At the same time, this moment is a tremendous opportunity for higher education to re-invent itself, while also improving access and success for a growing number of students not ‘making it’ in college today.  As the Gates Foundation, Harvard, MIT and many others realize, it’s better to embrace the change, move quickly, learn what works, and shape the future of higher education, rather than be left behind.


(This article was written in response to an article called “Viable Alternatives” which is available  here .)
Jake Murray is the Senior Director of Aspire Institute. He has over 20 years of experience in the education, health and human services fields, serving as an organizational leader, policy analyst, and strategic planner.