Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

 Email  Share  Print

Myth: Colleges and Universities Are Incapable of Change


Joseph E. Aoun


The following is an abridged version of the keynote address to the College Board Colloquium, delivered in Newport Beach, Calif., January 7, 2012.
There are important demographic shifts affecting higher education.

We are seeing increasing numbers of what we used to call “nontraditional” students—students over the age of 25—as well as significant increases in ethnic diversity and international students. A rapid explosion of knowledge is generating new fields and new educational needs. Employers are demanding global, mobile, and flexible talent. The master’s degree is becoming the new bachelor’s degree. The need—and the demand—for higher education continues to be strong.
Meanwhile, public and private institutions are facing significant challenges. On the federal level, these challenges are stark—less funding and more regulation. At the state level, the picture is even worse. States are disinvesting in public systems at a time when 80 percent of U.S. college students attend public universities. In addition, there are new players in the market—and not only the for-profits. We are seeing increasing competition from international universities.
Moving Beyond Traditional Boundaries
In this landscape, we need to take a hard look at our model of higher education. It is extremely effective and has flourished because of a robust middle class. But it is also extremely expensive, and the middle class is now financially challenged.

The model is exclusionary as well. We quantify our success by the number of students we reject, and focus on a small segment of the population. By definition, we cannot meet growing demand.

Fortunately, we are already seeing new approaches. Universities are opening campuses around the world, a phenomenon that is pushing us away from being place-based. And institutions are responding to cost issues by reducing time to degree and offering nonresidential options.

We are also witnessing an enormous shift to student-centered education. We see this in the emergence of customized curricula and the demand for global competencies and experiential education that integrates study and practice and prepares students to succeed in jobs or graduate school. This focus on outcomes may trouble us as academics, but it is not going to disappear.

Perhaps the most important development is the disassociation of knowledge delivery and credentialing. It is increasingly possible to acquire knowledge through open courseware and obtain credentials through a government test, rather than through a university. This has profound implications.
Globalization: Disruptions to Our Model
These changes and challenges on the domestic front are compounded by what is happening on the global level.

With demand increasing for education worldwide, American universities are stepping in—but sometimes with a gold-rush mentality. What is the impact on our model?
If our system is based on exclusion, what happens if we add 5,000 students in India? If we believe in access here, are we going to give access there? If we believe in academic freedom and establish ourselves in a country without academic freedom, how do we deal with that?

For the emerging nations, there are other concerns. These countries are looking for models of higher education that are affordable, sustainable, and adaptable. They want multiple modes of delivery at multiple price points. They want curricula relevant to their students. Is our system ready to respond?

Globalization forces us also to rethink our approach to research, which is already undergoing dramatic change. The distinction between fundamental and applied research is being questioned, and there is a shift toward use-inspired research. With declining federal support, we are looking for new partnerships with industry and businesses, and this has accelerated the globalization of research.

What are the implications? Here we have a great research system, but it is decoupled from cost. In India, the research infrastructure is minimal, but they have coupled research and cost. Imagine: We create imaging machines that cost upward of $2 million. If researchers in India can develop imaging machines costing only $50,000, they can export those machines and impact our economy.

Here is another dimension: When we contemplate research overseas, we imagine that we will focus on global problems such as the environment. But our colleagues in China have other priorities, including competition with us on innovation-based research.
Reaffrirming Our Social Compact
In many ways, our system is unique in the world, and I still believe it’s the best. It’s open, diverse, and meritocratic; it’s competitive, innovative, and risk-taking.

What has really allowed us to thrive is the fact that we entered into a social compact to educate citizens and contribute to the betterment of society. This justifies social investments in higher education and our nonprofit status.

This compact has been reaffirmed throughout our history in ways that speak to the needs of time and place. So how do we affirm the higher-education social compact in a way that is relevant today?

We are rooted on our home campuses, but we will function on multiple levels at the same time—global, regional, and local—and must respond to specific needs and challenges on each of these levels. What we do in India will be different from what we do in Indiana. If we are to thrive, our engagement must reflect those differences; our social compact must be reaffirmed with each community, each region, and each country in which we operate.

This is no small task. But it is a great opportunity, and one we must seize if we are to succeed in shaping the new normal.
Joseph E. Aoun is president of Northeastern University and chair of the ACE Board of Directors.