State Higher Ed at a Crossroads: The Story Sounds So Familar…

In the January 26, 2017 edition of our local newspaper, a story appeared titled, “Chancellor says state-owned university system ‘unsustainable,’ orders sweeping review” (http://triblive.com/local/westmoreland/11835303-74/state-system-brogan).  Interestingly, the same finding was reported in the Fall of 2015, as the Commonwealth’s budget was not approved until December of that year, causing funding to be withheld from public school districts and state-funded educational facilities, along with other vital services (http://www.clarion.edu/news/2015/october/state-of-the-system.html).

Then, in October 2016, the members of the faculties at these institutions go on strike for three days (http://www.mcall.com/news/nationworld/pennsylvania/mc-pa-universities-strike-enters-second-day-1020-20161020-story.html).  Now, four months later, the same story is repeated because of further decreasing enrollment and escalating costs, so a consultant is being sought to help figure out what to do (http://triblive.com/local/westmoreland/11891735-74/state-system-universities).

This story sounds strangely familiar.  It’s what Catholic, Christian, and other faith-based schools have been talking about for the last 40 years or so.  During that time, these schools were encouraged to look at what higher education was doing, since they were succeeding in attracting students and keeping their institutions financially sound.

But then came the student loan crisis.

And Millennials today are realizing that their college degree is just a stepping stone to a career path that may have potential landmines hiding somewhere in their future, and their hard work, successes and tenure really won’t amount to anything when layoffs are being considered.  These young employees are finding that their education as preparation for their career may not have prepared them, especially if they come to the realization that “No one told me about this.”

The bottom line is that these State Universities are finding their deficit is at $750 per student.  Here’s a novel idea:  Raise tuition $1000 per student, while seeing what can be cut from current offerings.  Higher education has been in expansion mode for a number of years, with excellent building projects that have been funded by major donors to attract more students to the college/university “experience.”  Dormitories are now Living and Learning Centers; Gymnasiums are now Convocation Venues; and new custom-designed curricular programs are being created through the capabilities afforded through technology to meet a student’s goals…which, unfortunately, may not be aligned with what employers are seeking.

A study released in 2014 showed that these college-age students – today’s Millennials – are more interested in independence than in success in the corporate world (http://www.forbes.com/sites/robasghar/2014/11/11/study-millennials-are-the-true-entrepreneur-generation/#22064aec5e92), and colleges aren’t necessarily the place one gains the skills to be a successful entrepreneur (save for business and finance disciplines).  And while many Universities and Colleges want to have as many programs as they can to attract as many students as they can, population trends show that there are fewer Millennials than there are Generation Xers than there are Baby Boomers.  Further, Millennials are waiting longer to have fewer children (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-05-03/millennials-still-want-kids-just-not-right-now), so there will be even fewer potential students in the coming years.

Here’s some free advice.  Five things need to happen simultaneously and systemically:

  • Increase tuition (more than what is currently needed to stabilize finances)
  • Specialize programs (which may mean each University ceases to be all things to all people)
  • Raise more money (which will mean redoubling institutional advancement efforts)
  • Customize curriculum (using technology to create meaningful curricular programs)
  • Foster additional “Additional/Other Revenue,” such as facility rental and event hosting to foster engagement from the local community.

Let’s watch and see what happens,

Posted in edu-cat-ion.