A Radical Solution for Higher Education

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For the past several weeks I have been sharing some ideas about ways to change (improve) higher education. While I look forward to reading the creative solutions that are proposed in The Chronicle of Higher Education contest about reinventing higher education, I will conclude my thoughts on this topic with my own proposal.

In my opinion, all of the ideas proposed in The Chronicle’s series are worthy of consideration and have some value. But none of them fully address the two main issues facing higher education … access and affordability. Higher education can always benefit by ideas related to programs and initiatives. But the future viability of colleges and universities may require something more radical.

Simply said, there are too many colleges in America all trying to duplicate the same programs and services. As we compete for students, we do our best to offer all of the curricular options, co-curricular programs and services, and facilities and resources that our students demand. And our students have these expectations because they see and hear about them on other campuses.

New majors, new programs, new services, new faculty and staff and new facilities require increased expenditures. Increased expenditures require increased tuition and fees. Increased tuition and fees make access and affordability a greater challenge.

The only real solution may be significant collaboration between and among colleges. Rather than duplicating programs and services, we should aggressively look for ways to offer programs and services together, sharing resources in every way. Let me offer some examples of what I mean.

Few small colleges can afford to offer a robust foreign language program. Even though we know our students should have the opportunity to study Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin, and Sign Language, as well as the traditional romance languages (and even a classical language too), we are reduced to selecting which languages to offer and/or only offering introductory courses.

What if multiple colleges joined together their language programs … pooled together their resources and shared the costs of faculty, learning materials, etc.? If the institutions were in close geographic proximity, classes could be offered on each and every campus with students provided with transportation. A shared bus is a better investment than separate and individual programs.

But even more efficient would be the use of technology. There’s no reason why students couldn’t be sitting in a classroom on one or more campuses (or even in their rooms or homes) taking a class being offered by a professor on a different campus. We do that now with online learning. In this model, our students would now have a full and robust foreign language program with a fraction of the cost for the individual institution. This model could work for any discipline or course of study.

We also need to consider collaboration of administration and facilities. If institutions with 10,000 students function with a single Controller, for example, why couldn’t four institutions of 2,500 students function the same way? This systems approach would bring incredible efficiencies to each institution while maintaining individual identity. There’s no reason why we cannot build, manage and share facilities as well. So many of our facilities are underutilized and with better planning, we could share these resources.

The fundamental challenge in higher education may be the autonomous way we approach most things. Thinking about systems, collaboration and partnerships may be the best and only way to control costs and increase access. But it will take bold leadership on the part of the higher education community. I wonder if we are ready?

What do you think?

Finally, let me wish each and every one of you a happy and blessed Thanksgiving! I hope you and your families have a restful and happy time together during this holiday weekend

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)


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Guest Friday, 25 July 2014