Change is a funny thing. It rarely happens spontaneously and is usually prompted by a problem, challenge, or unsatisfactory result. Change almost always causes a ripple effect. Higher education has been facing some difficult times. The industry continues to change. It was not long ago that higher education was viewed differently. It was seen as an opportunity to educate citizens for the greater good. To support this focus, tuition was low, generally only accessible in larger cities, and produced a generation of educated thinkers able to succeed in the workforce.
Slowly, over the years, higher education shifted to providing more skills-based, discipline-specific education. Tuition started to increase and educational options were on the rise. Not all of these changes were necessarily negative. Offering students greater accessibility and flexibility to education allowed a greater number of students to realize their academic goals. The United States’ economy started to see an increase in and the benefits of college-educated employees. Somewhere in between educational benefits for the masses and assuring accessibility for all, higher education became big business.
Some institutions understood that the student population was shifting. They started to see students as a consumer population. This shift initiated a need for new marketing campaigns, flexible educational models, and creative tuition structures. Students wanted a more personalized learning experience. They have professional and personal responsibilities that are overwhelming. In an effort to meet the needs of this changing student population, institutions designed educational options and student support services to cater to the “new student profile”, but at what cost?
Today, the rise of student debt is hardly news. Everyday a new article highlights the crushing debt students are saddled with upon completion of their shiny, new degree. For a few lucky graduates, they enter into substantial employment that allows them to slowly pay back their loans. So the questions remain, is it impossible to offer a quality education that focuses on student success at a reasonable cost? Has the “business” of higher education got in the way of the purpose of higher education?
We are bombarded with proposed solutions to higher education’s perceived problems. We require institutions to disclose strategic plans, document student outcomes, and publish institutional effectiveness data, but has higher education as an industry ever stopped to analyze its own value proposition? What if higher education completed a SWOT analysis of itself? Would we be surprised by the results? Would it matter? If we could take an honest look at the students’ lives we impact every day, would we be happy with the results?
Sometimes it is important to take a step back and remember our purpose. Higher education is about developing the thinkers and leaders of tomorrow. It encompasses providing a pathway to opportunity. It involves developing an appreciation for the world around us. It requires building an understanding of individual differences. Higher education offers people a foundation to foster thoughts and ideas that can inspire change in the world. So as we look at the issues facing higher education, we need to ask what little pebble did we toss into the water to create the tidal wave we face today. We need to avoid blame, accept responsibility, and seek solutions.
“Everything we do, even the slightest thing we do, can have a ripple effect and repercussions that emanate. If you throw a pebble into the water on one side of the ocean, it can create a tidal wave on the other side.” ~ Victor Webster