Countless institutions have been forced to adapt to the demands of the public in a fast changing landscape of technological innovation — from banks and airlines to grocery stores and even the postal service. But to a troubling degree, colleges and universities are stuck in the past.
Higher education continues to cling to the same static model it has used for generations: students packed into lecture halls on isolated campuses taking lessons from professors who grade them on everything from weighty matters (knowledge of a subject) to minor ones (class attendance and participation).
To a large extent, this approach seems to disregard the realities that students confront today, including an information explosion that renders yesterday’s lessons dated or obsolete, augmented competition for jobs in an increasingly interconnected world and the ever-changing demands of employers in search of workers with fresh skills and viewpoints.
Is it any surprise, then, that a growing chorus of critics – including students, parents and educators – are beginning to raise questions about the value of a traditional college education; especially, given the enormous costs of a four-year degree?
It may be a stretch to say the old institutions of higher learning are in danger of extinction. But the fact is that colleges and universities cannot continue with their traditional roles if they hope to remain relevant. Instead, institutions of higher learning need to adapt in a number of ways that reflect the requirements of students and, more important, our modern interdependent global society.
Part of the solution may rest with a wholesale revision of how society measures the success of colleges and universities.
For far too long, a premium has been placed on universities that boast of tough admissions standards, a stable of scholars churning out research papers and the like. But a true measure of success should go beyond such marketing gimmicks. It should measure the degree to which colleges and universities enhance the lives and social contributions of their students long after graduation day.
Consider what students themselves recently told Zogby Analytics pollsters, who conducted a survey for Laureate Education, a higher education company with 800,000 students attending 75 schools in 30 countries, including the United States.
In the survey, students said they believed that for universities to be successful in the future – defined as 15 years hence, for the purposes of the study — these institutions will need to be more flexible in the times of day and year that courses are offered and provide specific education tailored to meet skill sets that are highly coveted in the global marketplace.
To be sure, some higher education institutions have gotten the message, with more and more of them discarding outdated courses in their curriculum and replacing them with classes that focus on providing students with the specific skills and critical thinking needed to succeed in the rapidly evolving workplace.
But much more must be done in this area, if universities and colleges are serious about emerging from their proverbial ivory towers.
For universities and colleges to become truly functional contributing members of our modern society, these institutions must also recognize that in our swiftly changing world, people must be able to access educational opportunities that give them the tools they need to succeed throughout the course of their lives, whether that is at the beginning or middle of their careers.
Gone are the days of individuals doing the same job for the same company for their entire careers. The ability to move up the socio-economic ladder is increasingly determined by an individual’s willingness and ability to take risks and forge a new career path. One of the greatest investments is in education and not just monetarily, but with unyielding determination and perseverance fueled by self-invested capital.
I had a non-traditional, post-secondary educational experience that ultimately helped lead me out of a working-class neighborhood in New York City to the executive ranks in the financial services industry.
After a year in college, I decided to leave, finding the experience too academic and detached from my ultimate goal, climbing the socioeconomic ladder. I subsequently entered the workforce. But it wasn’t until I had tried a couple of different roles – jobs providing practical lessons and experiences – that I finally figured out what I wanted to do and then went to back to school to hone those skills and learn the material necessary to be successful.
I was fortunate enough to have grown up in an earlier generation that afforded me the time and opportunity to sort out my life and priorities. Today, students face a more unforgiving environment, inundated with shifting demands and expectations. However, amid these challenges are a myriad of potential employment and entrepreneurial opportunities across various industries, so the access to lifelong learning is essential. It is up to colleges and universities to recognize this and provide avenues for learning that make a meaningful difference for this and future generations of students.