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Business Officer Magazine

INSIGHTS: Joel Kotkin Urges a Return to Relevance

Traditional higher education has become less relevant for more Americans at a time when many need greater help to keep pace with a shifting economy, says author Joel Kotkin, in this interview with Business Officer.

By Ruth Constantine

*Too many graduates are carrying too much debt accrued as they prepared for jobs that now are increasingly in short supply, asserts Joel Kotkin, author of The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050 (The Penguin Press, 2010), and Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, Orange, California. Kotkin is likewise concerned that traditional higher education has become less relevant for more Americans at a time when many need greater help to keep pace with a shifting economy.

In this interview with Business Officer, Kotkin suggests ways in which leaders must rethink their institutions' educational offerings and delivery.

You've written at length about the impact of demographic and population shifts in the United States. How do you see these patterns affecting higher education institutions at a macro level?

Pretty much across the country, college and university enrollments have been on the rise over the past decade simply because of the millennial generation, which has brought a huge influx of new learners into the system. That demographic bulge will soon end, and at least for a while, we'll see fewer traditional college-age U.S. students in the pipeline.

For some interim period, certain institutions will continue to expand or—at least not shrink—due to demand from students overseas in countries such as India and China. That said, a growing number of degree seekers from these and other countries will start attending universities at home as those countries continue to ramp up their own education systems. Meanwhile, other internal population shifts are already reshaping the U.S. higher education landscape.

How so?

Well, when you are a young single person in your early 20s, what better place is there to live or attend school than New York City or San Francisco? That has long been the case, but fewer graduates are actually settling in these large urban and metro suburban areas. Many tend to leave by their 30s because they can't get jobs that pay enough to afford a house and to raise their kids. So they're moving to places like Texas and North Carolina, which have a much lower cost of living and economies that aren't in such bad shape on a national scale.

As these young families relocate, this impacts the population centers of the next generation. This dynamic is already in play, as evidenced by massive expansions within the University of Texas System and, before the economy stalled, universities in Arizona and Nevada. At the same time, states such as New York, California, and Illinois simply won't be able to do much of anything except triage until they fix their budgets; the budget situation will absolutely affect public higher education opportunities in those states.

What specific changes do you predict will occur as states address their financial constraints?

It will vary by state, but legislators and school system administrators have to critically assess how they are spending their education dollars versus where they could spend those dollars most effectively. For instance, I don't believe that teachers are overpaid, and a good number may be underpaid, but many benefits packages are fiscally unsustainable. Some states and municipalities will have to reallocate money away from some of these generous benefits and pension plans and put more toward direct educational needs.

And what is your assessment of the general state of higher education programming on a national scale? Where are our priorities perhaps skewed?

Currently we're churning out way too many lawyers, investment bankers, and graduates with degrees in subjects such as post-modernist English—few of whom are actually necessary to the growth of the economy and whose prospects for a good job are diminishing. I'm not saying there isn't value in offering these degrees or that there aren't students wanting to pursue these professions. But we have to ask the bigger question of why our institutions are motivated by building up particular programs that, in the broader scheme, don't offer many employment prospects for our graduates. Are we really committed to finding ways for more middle-class and working-class kids to make a decent living? As I look around, this doesn't often seem to be a priority.

So is it your assessment that higher education leaders should stop pushing the four-year degree? I ask in part because many four-year institutions, including my own, are increasingly emphasizing practical experiences and service-learning internships. How does providing that rich liberal arts education mesh with this growing need for more of the workforce training you suggest is required?

First, I believe strongly in the role of a traditional liberal education that is multidisciplinary and exposes students to a breadth of ideas, which is the niche that we also serve at Chapman. What I fear is that more institutions are providing narrowly ideological coursework and programs that don't include the basics or consider what students may really need in the way of employable skills.

I'm also deeply troubled that our nation's higher education system is producing too many graduates who are carrying debts they will be paying off for a very long time. Part of what we've seen during this recession is a lot of young people parking themselves in school, often living off their parents to do so. Unfortunately, for a good number, the financial burdens may later limit their options for other things, such as investing in a business or buying a house.

We have to ask the bigger question of why our institutions are motivated by building up particular programs that don't offer many employment prospects for our graduates. Are we really committed to finding ways for more middle-class and working-class kids to make a decent living?

Do you think we are overemphasizing the value of a college degree?

I think we are overemphasizing the value of advanced and high-end education for the masses. I have great respect for the full offering of education and what that contributes to society and to our economy. The problem is not with a traditional liberal arts education per se or with research institutions, which we certainly need, or even with the niche that very elite institutions fill. There should always be choice and options to fit the needs of increasingly diverse learners. Differentiated systems and self-selection are good things, and we should all be free to choose a particular educational path. But on some level we have to recognize that, for many individuals, learning to be a welder, or an office manager, or an X-ray technician is both more practical and desirable. So what we need is greater emphasis on training people for jobs that actually exist.

We also need more institutions that were founded with a mission to prepare teachers and nurses and middle managers to return to those priorities. Not every institution should strive to launch a premier research program or try to become a mini-Harvard. Yet, that is exactly what I think too many faculty and administrators have idealized for their institutions. I question whether enough leaders are focused on what is best for their students and for society as opposed to what is best for the professoriate.

Something we haven't touched on directly, but we're skirting around it here, is the notion that more working adults will need to refresh their knowledge and skills from time to time. We've certainly seen this already as a result of the recession.

Absolutely. Foremost, education can't be thought of as one thing, but as many things. The needs of learners for different kinds of knowledge and skills-and options for acquiring these-will only increase. We are still too shackled by the mind-set that we go to school when we are young and then focus on our careers. In real life, we learn over time. So we need to substantially rethink the role of a higher education institution and its entire menu of offerings. It's perfectly fine to have a primary niche and serve that niche. But as we reach out to new populations of learners, we have to be flexible with what we provide and how we deliver that education. The upside is that real opportunity exists for colleges and universities that think creatively about how to meet the needs of a larger universe of learners.

What specifically do you have in mind?

It could be offering coursework to real-estate specialists who want to better understand how cities are developed or why particular regions or economies decline or grow. Perhaps active clergy in your area would benefit from a class on comparative religion or the history of religion so that they have a better understanding of other traditions. Or they may benefit from learning more about the local economy to help them with community development efforts.

Colleges and universities could do many things that would be very creative but far short of a four-year degree or a two-year degree or even a formal certificate. You may have to be clever about how you package and deliver it, but there is certainly a place for more of the kind of education that allows people to learn about something of interest and apply it strategically to what they are actually doing. There is no formula. But if a trend were emerging, it's toward providing more education that is relevant and accessible to more people and not necessarily tied to a formal degree.

RUTH CONSTANTINE is vice president for finance and administration at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.