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Business Officer Magazine
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Insights: Arthur Levine's Call for Clarity

By Karla Hignite

What motivates students is something Levine ponders as president and professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, New York City. And while his day job entails preparing the next generation of educators and administrators, Levine has a few words of warning for current higher education leaders. Observations he shared with Business Officer reveal how several subtle demographic shifts could leave U.S. institutions vulnerable to known and new competitors.

What change in student composition will most influence how institutions operate in the future?
The growing divide between two primary populations will push colleges and universities to choose a target audience. The fastest-growing student segment in the United States is women over the age of 25 who are attending part time and working. They don’t want to pay for a giant athletic facility they aren’t using or electives they aren’t taking. They want convenience, service, quality, and low cost—a scaled-down educational experience.

And the second group?
The traditional 18- to 22-year-olds who attend full time and live on campus or nearby want a counselor specific to their ethnic group, gender, and sexual orientation; a cornucopia of food options; classes on virtually every topic imaginable; and student activities 24 hours a day. The end result: Half the college population wants the bare minimum and the other half wants everything.

Can an institution serve both populations?
Not easily, and not arbitrarily. The need to be intentional about audience is heightened by other shifts such as geographic redistribution. We know that the U.S. population is moving west and south. Will those areas build more campuses, invest in one sector such as community colleges, go online? And this migration doesn’t bode well for many institutions in the Midwest, Northeast, and mid-Atlantic states where capacity will become greater than the number of students available. All across the country institutions will have to rethink their mission and market.

What else will push institutions to redefine audience and delivery?
With individuals returning to school more often to update skills and knowledge, where they go becomes a critical concern. We know the for-profit sector believes it can do a better job than traditional higher education on delivery and cost. But another, less-noticed sector is answering the call for training. Currently the largest professional development source in math and science is the public broadcasting system. These not-for-profit organizations are using proven methods of technology to distribute and package knowledge to look like college.

Won’t most students still want a degree from an accredited institution?
If I earn a degree from ABC University or a certificate from Microsoft, which has greater name recognition in the eye of an employer? Increasingly we will see a blurring of distinction about which provider of education represents the best value. The larger question is whether we’re going to maintain degrees.

What’s the alternative?
As a student, if I can choose among different providers and ways of learning in various time frames and locations, what does a degree mean in that context? A bachelor’s degree—even one from a highly selective university—is ultimately a measure of seat time that says I completed 128 credits. But what do I know? What can I do? Wouldn’t that be more valuable for an employer to assess? Why not move from granting degrees to measuring competencies? Every American could have a transcript or portfolio that would document their educational experiences and competencies achieved throughout their lifetime. A national clearinghouse would have to be established for this purpose.

Which non-student population will have the biggest influence on the shape of higher education?
Baby boomers make up almost 60 percent of the electorate. Collectively if we want something, we can get it. While we used to be the prime audience for improving educational quality, our priorities are radically shifting. For the most part our kids are through school, our parents are aging, and we’re looking toward our retirement. In effect, we are going to turn our backs on education because we will now ask government to spend more on social security, health care, and elder care.

Does this spell a shrinking market share for traditional higher education?
It means we must figure out how to operate within an environment of greater competition. The challenge for every institution is to decide whom it will serve and how. Not every institution should become click or even brick and click. But if you remain a brick only, you will have to offer students an experience palpably different than what they could receive elsewhere. Otherwise, why should they pay to attend?

KARLA HIGNITE, principal of KH Communication, Tacoma, Washington, is senior editor of Business Officer.