Are Predictions About College Closures Causing More Schools to Struggle? How Might Alternative Predictions Shape the Future of Higher Education?

Anyone who follows contemporary issues in higher education is familiar with the provocative prediction from Clayton Christiansen (and others like Thomas Frey) that 50% of colleges will close over the 10-15 years. Will it happen? We are already several years into the prediction, so we don’t have to wait too long to find out. Only I’d like to posit three other questions.

First, does it have to happen?

Second, is the college closure prediction causing colleges to struggle and close?

Third, could the definition of “higher education“ be keeping us from recognizing that the more likely future is one of expanded higher education?

Let’s start with the first question. Does this closure prediction have to happen? Thomas Frey, a futurist whose work I follow and admire, is known for saying that, “the future creates the present.” In other words, our visions and musings about the future shape our thinking in the present. By thinking more deeply about a particular vision of the future, we may also be helping to make it a reality.

So, does it have to happen? At this point, I suspect that some version of the college closure prediction is likely to occur. In fact, the spirit of the prediction has already occurred. The number of closures is up, and there are many colleges struggling for survival. Did this have to happen? Yes and No. There could be other data-informed predictions and ways of thinking about the future that could create a very different future for higher education. Competing predictions could have shaped and redirected the public conversation in very different ways. Some colleges would have still closed, as they have always done. For a helpful historical perspective of the wild rise and demise of colleges in the United States, check out A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education by David Labaree.

What about the second question? Is Christiansen’s prediction causing colleges to struggle and close? If Frey’s concept is accurate, that the future creates the present, does that mean that the prediction of the future is indeed helping to create the present circumstances? Or, to be fair, is the prediction of several futurists that many colleges will close soon helping to make that a reality?

Consider this example. There was recent rumor about a possible release of an article in a well known higher education news source that was going to provide a list of predictions about which colleges are likely to close in the next ten years. It turns out that this was not exactly the intent of the article and it has not released at this point, but there are indeed groups that are analyzing colleges based upon publicly available records, and they could release such a list.

What happens next? Suppose there is a college that is struggling but it is doing amazing work to stabilize, turn itself around, and re-imagine itself in ways that could be incredible, inspiring, and valuable to the world. Yet, the current circumstance of that organization is fragile. Then an article releases that predicts this college’s closure within 5-10 years. How do you think that will impact the college’s ability to recruit new students or raise new funds? How do you think it will impact its ability to build strategic partnerships? By publishing such a specific prediction, it didn’t just offer a neutral report. It helped make the prediction a more likely reality. It might have potentially undermined the present turnaround efforts of the institutions on that list. Of course, I live in a nation where there is freedom of press, and I would not want to censor such free exchange. I just want to acknowledge that such writing isn’t just describing. It is helping to create a particular future. It isn’t just informing. It is forming.

The same thing applies with broader or more general predictions about higher education. It would not be fair or accurate to claim that Clayton Christiansen’s prediction about college closures is the cause of so many recent college struggles and even closures, nor would it be accurate. There are many other factors. Yet, it is hard to deny that this prediction changed the contemporary discourse in higher education. Just scan the number of media headlines. If you go to higher education conferences, there is no doubt that you’ve heard countless people quoting Christiansen’s prediction or discussing it between sessions. Talk to groups of college presidents or to chairs of college boards, and you will find that this quote has influenced in will influence their thinking and choices. To publicly predict something is to help make it a more likely reality.

I don’t write this as a criticism. I support the fact that Christiansen wrote this. It sparked good and important conversation. It drew people’s attention to the many forces influencing the future of higher education. It also sparked new thinking and innovations.

Yet, when a well-respected Harvard professor makes such a prediction and it starts to gain traction, that is powerful force. It gets picked up by more media sources and gains the attention of people in places of influence. Just look at how Howard Gardner’s writing shifted an entire generation of educator’s view of intelligence. Ideas (and predictions are ideas) have consequences. They are never neutral. If they are shared and discussed, they influence. They influence policy. They influence the thinking and decision of key influencers in government, higher education leadership, accrediting agencies, think tanks, and more.

So, did the prediction that 50% of all colleges will close in the next 10-15 years help make that a more likely future? There is compelling case that the answer is “yes.” Would that future have occurred even without the prediction being shared? I think the answer that question is also “yes.”

This brings me to the third question. Could our definition of “higher education” be causing us to miss an opportunity to help create a possible future of rapidly expanding higher education?

Followers of my work know that I’ve challenged the college closure prediction, not because I think it is inaccurate, but because I think a more nuanced prediction could help us create a more hopeful future for learning beyond high school. I don’t doubt or question that many colleges will struggle and close, especially those resistant to fundamental changes. We already see that happening, and if they are not able to provide enough value to warrant the attendance of students and the support of donors, perhaps it is time for them to close. Yet, despite all of this, I made the following prediction in 2015:

Will that mean that only half survive? I think that is too simple of a picture. Many will have extreme makeovers, but will emerge with new life. Some will shrink while others expand. And alongside all of that, I am convinced that we will see an entirely new breed of higher education institution… I expect that, by 2030 [or maybe 2035], we might have two to three times as many higher education institutions as we have today, even as there will be more alternatives to the traditional college routes for people. Get ready for the higher education “startup” revolution. They might not all be higher education institutions as we’ve thought of them in the past, but they will be institutions [or communities] that provide education beyond the secondary level.

In fact, while many media sources are quick to join in helping to amplify the impact of the prediction about college closures, I continue to contend that we are missing the higher education revolution underway. People are drawn to the headlines of college closures and colleges on probation with their accreditors (I’m helping lead one of those colleges right now, and the future is admittedly unclear), and those make for provocative headlines. Yet, one need not look further than Clayton Christiansen’s own writing about how disruptive innovation works to know that the true disruptions are often missed, even ignored in early stages. Not only are they missed and ignored by the established institutions, they are also often missed by the media and larger system. That is happening today.

There is a rapid democratization of learning community creation, formation, and cultivation at work today. I’ve sometimes referred to this as “outsider higher education” because it resembles the development of outsider art. Outsider artists often didn’t (and don’t) even consider themselves artists. Yet, over time, outsider art became a part of the larger ecosystem. This is happening all over the place, especially in the digital landscape. Individual instances have an ebb and flow of media attention and discussion in higher education communities, but people rarely recognize how these individual instances represent a larger pattern and movement that is changing the nature of learning and education. Sometimes these individual instances resemble traditional higher education communities. Other times they don’t, and they don’t bother with such things as grades, transcripts, degrees, any many other characteristics that are part of our image of higher education.

As one who studies past, present, and future trends in education; I continue to be amazed at how little many of us in higher education know about our own history, and how short that history is when it comes to aspects of college or higher education experience. When we step back and look at the history of higher education, we see that change is the norm, sometimes drastic change.

The problem is that these new and emerging higher education communities look so different from what we think of as college that we don’t think to include them in our conversations about the future of the ecosystem. Yet, if we think of them in terms of the goals that they help people achieve (beyond earning a degree), there is a strong case to be made that they are indeed a part of the broader notion of higher education.

When I predict that we will have two to three times the number of higher education communities, I am not suggesting that these will be formal or regionally accredited colleges. Rather, I am suggesting that they will be communities that, at their essence, expand and extend people’s learning beyond the secondary level. If we are willing to broaden or perspective, we soon begin to see that this is a revolution that has been underway for fifty years, and it is growing exponentially.

So, while we already have predictions about college closures, I expect that the far more interesting and promising predictions relate to what forms of higher education will persist. By only focusing upon the college closure predictions, we risk contributing to a future where there are a smaller number of dominant institutions that lack the variety and diversity that exists today. If we instead broaden our definition of higher education and focus upon predictions of a rich, vibrant, diverse, and highly valued ecosystem; we have a much better chance of helping make that future a present reality.

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10 Ways to Infuse A Spirit of Innovation & Entrepreneurship in Your Learning Organization

In Bold, Peter Diamandis and Stven Kolter wrote, “If you don’t disrupt yourself someone else will.” I don’t treat this as an absolute, but it is a proverbial truth. The eduction space is one of tremendous innovation and entrepreneurship today. This doesn’t mean abandoning every practice or tradition, and given that education is a collective social good, it doesn’t even mean that every learning organization needs to be deeply innovative and entrepreneurial. There is plenty of room for different types of learning organizations in the K-12 and higher education, and also in the massive education space beyond these formal organizations. With that said, if you aspire to be an innovative and entrepreneurial organization, it probably means making a few changes. Following are ten tips. They are not a recipe for innovation. There are plenty of ways to nurture a culture of innovation. However, in my work with various learning organizations and education companies, paying attention to these ten tips is a great start. Each one is not something you just do and check off a list. Each one takes time, organizational and individual soul-searching, persistence, a thick skin, and a fervent commitment to the task.

1. Celebrate innovation and entrepreneurship.

I’m not talking about just saying it. I mean really celebrate it. Lift it up. Encourage it and back up your encouragement with the resources for people to do it. The top people in the organization need to be behind it. They don’t always need to lead it, but they do not to celebrate it. This means giving people the space to innovative because entrepreneurs and innovators wither with micro-management. They need support, encouragement, celebration, and empowerment.

2. Hire or raise up people who are passionate about being deeply informed about the possibilities.

C. E. M. Joad wrote that, “The height of originality is skill in concealing origins.” Ideation and innovation are both fueled by a deep and broad sense of the possibilities. There is a certain breed of person that craves exploring and discovering the possibilities. Sometimes they just seem obsessed with discovering diverse sources, models, examples, and frameworks. They read, observe, connect… They are building this deep well of insights from which they can pull when they begin to innovate. These are valuable people to have around if you want a culture of innovation. When it comes to the education space, we are talking about finding people who are not just interested in replicating and imitating what other organizations do. Look for people who can keep the mission of your organization in focus, but they explore the world for ideas, some of which might have an interesting application in your organization.

3. Match your entrepreneurs, innovators and edupreneurs with people who love being part of innovation but are great at making things happen and attending to the details.

If you add detail people who are intimidated, overwhelmed or even defensive about innovation; that will not work out. However, if you can match your innovators with these “get it done and done well” people, watch out! They can be a powerful combination. Sometimes it is the same person, but often (even most often) it is not.

4. Include system thinkers.

When you start to innovate, all sorts of things can be affected. It is extremely valuable to have people who understand all parts of the operation instead of just an organization full of specialists. If you find an innovator who is also a systems thinker, grab them and empower them. These systems thinkers don’t just think about how one thing impacts another in the organization. These people get under the hood. They want to know all aspects of the operation. They don’t just play or dabble. They dig deep, while not mistaking their digging for full-scale expertise. They can be critical resources in understanding what will work and what will not, or how to work toward conditions where something new can work. Oftentimes, the organization obsessed with specialists and tidy divisions of labor miss the wisdom of these system thinkers with disastrous results. These people see things that others just don’t get, and if they have a track record of using their capacity for systems thinking to get things done well, trust them with it.

5. Embrace wonderfully lopsided people, giving them freedom to grow their strengths…while helping to minimize or manage their limitations.

Especially in some education organizations, there can be this idolatry of the well-rounded person..the employee equivalent of the student who got straight “As” in all subjects, played multiple sports, and was loved by everyone. If you only look for those people, you are going to miss out on some world-class talent. Some of the best people in the world in various domains are what I call “wonderfully lopsided.” They have a huge strength. They build on it and use it to do extraordinary things. They also have gaps and limitations. You can focus on those limitations or you can embrace the whole person and then help them manage the limitations while letting them do amazing things in the organization with their strengths. Keep pushing them back to working on their weaknesses and you risk preventing them from creating their next masterpiece.

6. Create spaces for freedom, experimentation and exploration.

This means freedom from something. That something is often the standard way of doing things, the expected way of doing things, standard practice and policy, and sometimes even the “acceptable” way of doing things. Let them experiment. Learning organizations often don’t do this well because they cut their teeth on a culture of earning and a fixed mindset. Experiments have uncertain results, which is why they are called experiments. If you want innovation, then you need to have a tolerance and celebration of experimentation. This doesn’t have to mean multi-million dollar experiments. You can manage risks at reasonable and tolerable level, and that will vary depending upon your organizational culture. Without experimentation you will probably not get much world-class innovation.  Sometimes it takes months or years to benefit from these experiments but if you have the resources and patience, they can pay huge dividends.

7. Remove fear and uncertainty associated with top-down power moves and changing the rules in the middle of the game.

Fear can be a motivator, but threats, top-down power plays and top-down changes behind closed doors will kill the motivation and energy of most innovators and entrepreneurs. If you are committed to running your organization this way, you will lose some of your top talent. You’ll keep the rule followers. You’ll keep the people who are happy just following directives from above. You’ll lose your innovators and entrepreneurs almost every time. Imagine playing a game of chess and someone jumps in and starts pulling some of your pieces off the board, forcing you to play without them. Then they start changing the rules of the game on you. That sort of unpredictability will squash the spirit of innovative people and teams.

8. Ignore the “Equal Treatment” mindset of some organizations.

This is a difficult one for some people to handle, but the “equal treatment” myth is just that. Treating all people and units the same is not equal because they don’t all need the same things. In addition, your organization will need to invest in promising ideas and people who are working on the next innovation. Find ways to fund, support and empower those people. The more you can do to help the rest of the organization see the wisdom and importance of this, the better. This often means giving some freedom and flexibility to do things that might not usually be done, that might not fit in the standard policies and practices. There is a careful line to draw here. Some things are non-negotiable, but be flexible with the rest.

8. Don’t expect the innovators and entrepreneurs to color within the lines.

This relates to #7, but if you want to embrace a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, this means realizing that these people often don’t color within the lines. That can be a challenge because coloring between the lines was pretty much invented in schools.

9. Sift everything through the mission and vision, but be open to interesting twists and improvisations around the mission and vision.

This is where we draw the lines with the  non-negotiables. The mission, vision, values and goals that are core to the organization need to be standard for all people. Even (especially) the innovators need to respect, embrace, and innovate around these. At the same time, they might put fascinating and surprising twists on what that mission looks like, especially if we allow them the freedom from some of the traditional trappings while holding them to sifting everything through these core elements.

10. Partner, network, connect, beg, borrow, and steal (in the flattering, not illegal sense); but beware of disengaged outsourcing.

Outsourcing part of your operation can be an effective strategy at times, but stay deeply engaged. Learn all you can. You want to build intellectual capital for the future. Even with that (and as I and others have written or said many times before), some of the best people in the world are not in your organization. So, partner, connect, and network with those people. At minimum, try to learn from the best people, organizations, and innovations in the world.

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The Future of the Univeristy? Which one?

What will the University look like in the future?  Amid the potentially disruptive innovations of online education, open education, media blasts about the cost of higher education, blended learning, MOOCs, and a variety of educational technologies; more people are wondering about the answer to this question.  I prefer a different question.  Instead of wondering what they will look like, I am more interested in what they could look like.

In an era that some are calling the Wild West of higher education, there is no shortage of innovation and experimentation.  This has been true in global higher education for centuries.  We’ve seen experimentation with grading systems, technologies, the role of professor/tutor/GA, methods of teaching and learning, financial models, levels of access to diverse learners, core curricula changes, distance education, the role of research, and various forms of competency-based education.  Some of these terms may be new, but people have been experimenting with them for quite some time.

When we look at higher education institutions today, it is deceptive to simply refer to the whole of higher education as the “University” as if that were one thing.  We have research Universities, teaching Universities, alternative Universities, online Universities, small liberal arts colleges, large state schools, faith-based schools, for-profit, and open Universities.  We have schools that are highly selective and those that accept 95% or more of all applicants.  We have portions of Universities that emphasize undergraduate education, graduate education, continuing education and professional programs.  Within Universities we have schools of arts, sciences, business, education, healthcare, and various applied sciences.  There are resident-based schools where everyone lives in dorms, and others where the majority (or all) commute.  There are Universities that use grades and credits, others that use narrative feedback and portfolio assessments, others that emphasize a culminating paper or project, and many that use a blend of these.  Then we can look at the role of extracurricular activities in Universities.  I will not even venture to list the variety of clubs, organizations and sport teams associated with Universities.  Consider, for example, the seemingly endless list of student organizations that Harvard has for students.  There is an immense amount of variety in higher education.

All of this points to the fact that the University is not one thing.  People who turn to higher education are not simply looking for one thing and those within Universities are not offering or promoting one thing.  When someone asks me what I think about the future of the University, I often join the crowd in discussing the influence of a current innovation like MOOCs or distance education.  However, I’m sometimes tempted to reply, “Which one?”  By that, I mean two things.  Which future?  Which University?

The first question, “Which future?” is a challenge to the idea that there is a single deterministic future to the University that is fundamentally at the will of larger economic, technological, and social influences.  It is an invitation for us to twist the conversation into dreaming and imagining which future we want to create, how we can imagine the University being an agent of change and influence in society.  Sometimes this is through direct engagement with the world through research, scholarship, and various forms of service.  Or, it might be imagining how the University can be an agent of change and influence by the quality and type of student that comes out of this future University.  Either way, it is inviting a conversation about what we want to strive for or what we want to become.  This is and has always been a vibrant part of the concept that we call “University.”  This “Which future?” question eventually draws us back to a conversation about the second question, “Which University?”

By “Which University?”, I mean to draw attention to the fact that the concept of the University is a wonderfully diverse concept.  This question asks us to consider and distinguish between the many functions, aspects, and types of University life and culture. To ignore such details is the equivalent of trying to have a conversation about the future of relationships.  While it can make for an interesting and enlightening discussion, at some point it might be helpful to explore the future of different types of relationships or even specific relationships.  This is true for the University as well.  What is the future of various forms of distance education in higher education?  What is the future of credit hours and courses?  What is the future of the resident-based liberal arts institution?  At some point, to make meaningful progress in our conversation, we need to focus our attention on the details.

What is the Future of the University?  That is a good question.  Which one?



















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10 Future of Higher Education Discussion Starters, Quotes, & Predictions

1. “The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.” from Nathan Harden in The End of the University as We Know It.

2. “College is Dead. Long Live College!” from Amanda Ripley in Time article by that title.

3. “Higher education does have real problems, and MOOC’s, badges—certificates of accomplishment—and other innovations have real potential to tackle some of them. They could enrich teaching, add rigor, encourage interdisciplinarity, reinforce education’s real-world applicability, and make learning more efficient—advances all sorely needed.” from Scott Carlson & Goldie Blumenstyk in For Whom is College Being Reinvented?

4. “We have also learned that our university must be intimately engaged in primary and secondary education so that future students come to us with the necessary skills that will help them thrive in an academic environment.” from John Petillo (President of Sacred Heart University) in Assessing the Future of Higher Education.

5. “For decades, the growth of knowledge and development of culture and industry was heavily dependent upon what went on inside major research U.S. universities. Today, it is no longer clear that universities will continue to be the dominant site (or model) for the generation of new knowledge.” from Overview of The Future of Higher Education 12/11

6. Regarding MOOCs, “Disruptive because many in the higher ed community worry that unless they’re careful, universities will go the way of newspapers and the music industry: give their product away for free online and lose customers in the process.” from Ida Lieszkovsky in MOOCS and the Future of Technology in Higher Education

7. “As lecture content is moved online, instructors will be able to re-think the classroom experience.  A new model for peer-to-peer and peer-to-faculty interaction will need to be created, as this is one of the most fundamental components of classroom learning.” from Chris Proulx in 5 Ways Technology Will Impact Higher Ed in 2013

8. “On-campus tuition will continue to rise, to cover increasing costs for services and facilities. This, in turn, will further reduce enrollments, and campuses will become less diverse, accessible only to students from affluent families. Online education presents a huge opportunity to reverse these trends and improve the economic health of public colleges and universities.”  by Jeb Bush in Commentary: Online Courses Can Ed higher Education’s Financial Crisis

9. “The liberal arts education has outlasted other forms of pedagogical training. Indeed, one might go so far as to argue that the modern world is the by-product of minds trained in the liberal arts tradition.” from Dr. Tillman Nechtman in The Liberal Arts in the Modern World: A Defense

10. “We believe that universities and companies will begin to create and license online courses and use them in a smaller, contained/closed environment.  MOOCs won’t go away, but the real traction will be the use of teaching technologies brought down to smaller groups of people that will more closely mimic the best of the current classroom environment.”
by Dayna Catropa & Margaret Andrews in MOOCs to MOCCs.

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