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Constance Iloh

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New Year, Old Problem: Higher Education is Changing Whether We Are Ready or Not

A new year always ushers in the promise of opportunities, trends, and improvements from the year we left behind. I have always been skeptical of how higher education claims that it is on the cutting edge, as it is nestled in an industry often resistant to the very change it needs to thrive. Accordingly, a few months ago I wrote a post regarding how contemporary study of black students in higher education was archaic, referencing changes in black student characteristics and college choice.

But in reality, such a critique is germane to all of higher education, as I am not quite sure we have a clear picture of the value proposition of higher education in 2013. A useful example of this is a recent national opinion poll, con­ducted for North­eastern by FTI Con­sulting. Among many things, poll respondents wished higher education focused more on entrepreneurship education, co-ops that integrate professional work opportunities, hybrid courses combining online and in-person teaching, as well as no frills education that was deemed a better option compared to the full campus experience.

Such findings indicate that it is no longer a good use of our time to romanticize the college dream as football games and living in a dorm, not only because this image of campus life is becoming less visible, it also less in demand. Further, our attempts to place boxes around institutional types blur our ability to understand changes in student demand and institutional offerings. When asked about my research agenda on for-profit higher education, sometimes interested parties conflate online education with proprietary higher education. This is a gross error considering the number of land-campus proprietary institutions in existence as well as traditional institutions that also provide online programs. Such an example illustrates the danger of inferring institutional missions and offerings from institutional classification. I propose we begin to understand institutions by what they do rather than what they are called on paper. Perhaps the terms public, private, not-for-profit, non-profit, and for-profit mask the ways in which institutions themselves have become more or less privatized, innovative, and revenue-focused.

The point of this post is deceptive, as it hides my optimism for how much ground we can cover in the New Year. I hope at the end of 2013 this post will be irrelevant, as higher education leaders and scholars become more reflective about what it is, who wants it, and how it can best serve a nation in need of it to be aware of the changing times.

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