Is 'The Academy' Losing Relevancy?

Today's blog is posted by Jerry Johnson, executive vice president at Brodeur Partners.

Late last fall, reporter Amanda Ripley wrote an article for TIME magazine with the ominous title “College is Dead. Long Live College!” It was the latest in a long litany of articles by reporters and pundits who have been doing a lot of rethinking lately about the institution long known as “the academy.”

college_classIs the “academy” losing its relevancy? There’s evidence this may be the case with groups important to its future, notably parents, students, alumni and opinion leaders.

We’ve worked on numerous research projects with groups of people both inside and outside colleges and universities across the country. Everything suggests higher education faces significant challenges in three areas: financial, technological and institutional relevance.

Is the academy financially relevant? This question is being asked by both students and parents facing skyrocketing tuitions as well by alumni who, in light of the ever-increasing pressure for giving, are rethinking the utility of both annual giving and capital campaigns. Tuitions at many schools are out of the reach of the average family. That, in turn, has led to an unprecedented (and unsustainable) level of personal tuition loan debt. A recently released survey by The Princeton Review suggest that while in years past people’s primary worry was getting into the “right school,” today the primary worry is how to pay for whatever school you get in to.

On the other side of graduation, the academy is facing headwinds from alumni. The competition for gifts to “good causes” among affluent alumni is increasing. Moreover, the younger Gen X and Gen Y alumni show distinctly different attitudes and giving patterns to giving compared to their boomer counterparts. Add to this the declining government funding, and there are many nervous development officers wondering where the next funding dollar is going to come from.

Is the academy technologically relevant? Technology is fundamentally changing the academy the same way it changed the business of news media over a decade ago. As popular New York Times columnist wrote in a piece titled “The Campus Tsunami,” “what happened to the newspaper and magazine business is about to happen in higher education: a scrambling around the Web.”

Why go to a university when one can get a considerable amount of instruction on the Internet for free? Indeed, the global demand for access to knowledge and the emerging opportunities for innovative technology to deliver it presage dramatic changes in “the academy’s” value proposition. Innovations like Kahn University and the explosion of MOOCs are just the beginnings of what will likely be very fundamental structural changes.

Is the academy institutionally relevant? Perhaps the biggest challenge is an uptick of people questioning the very being of the academy. Rightly or wrongly, almost every important audience we talk to – particularly employers and opinion leaders – are seeing a “profound disconnect” between what young people are learning and the world they’re going into. As one public policy executive told us, “The public institutions are in a crisis of declining public support … they’ve been slow to come to the reality that this decline is permanent.”

We don’t think it has to be. Amidst all this, we do see many colleges and universities successfully navigating a critical time of change. They have at least three things in common.

First, they are taking risks and taking action. The challenges of financing and technology will not change over the short- and medium-term. Institutions are experimenting, innovating and taking needed risks to restructure funding and curriculum.

Second, many of the best institutions are focusing as much in the “how” as the “what.” With the commoditization of information, the premium for the education experience increasingly will go beyond the lecture hall and into the streets.

Finally, we see colleges and universities rethinking, restructuring and rebuilding their ties to key communities – everything from students and parents to alumni to the towns and business sectors that they serve.

Those within “the academy” that best navigate the “digital disruption” taking place in education will be those who are most likely to be relevant to the students and alumni of tomorrow.

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