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The Decade Ahead Promises Great Change in Higher Education

Written by Jeffrey Selingo on Jun 21, 2017

Related content: Higher Education, Data Science, Big Data, Op Edu

The decade ahead for higher education will be one of great change for colleges, according to a new survey of university deans, two-thirds of whom say their institutions will look much different ten years from now.

The survey, of more than 100 university deans, was conducted by the Arizona State-Georgetown University Academy for Innovative Higher Education Leadership and 2U, which partners with top colleges and universities to provide online education.

With campuses under increasingly pressure to reinvent their financial model and rethink how they deliver instruction, deans play a central role in designing the college of the future. They are often seen as among the most entrepreneurial leaders in higher education because they have the ability to take risks and experiment without drawing attention to the entire institution.

In some cases, deans now have more power than the provost because they oversee such vast operations and are responsible for their own revenue in ways they weren’t before. That requires them to think strategically about the future.

Overall, the survey found that deans remain confident in higher education as an industry — its place in the world, its value to families as a ticket to a better life — but they lack faith in institutions to carry out the ideals of higher education. These findings echo a recent survey by New America of the public at large, who were also optimistic about higher education, but not trusting of universities to be student-centric.

Among the major findings of the survey:

A quarter of deans believe that the U.S. higher education system is still the “best in the world” and another 6 in 10 believe it’s one of the best.

For the most part, deans say higher education remains a good financial bet. Nearly half of deans say higher education is an excellent or very good value for the money spent.

Still, only 25 percent of deans say higher education is headed in the right direction and a surprising 30 percent of them are unsure if the industry as a whole is on the right track.

Despite complaints from outsiders that higher education is tradition-bound, nearly half of the deans surveyed rated higher education as “excellent” or “very good” for fostering academic innovation. Still, when it comes to the pace of change on their own campuses, more than one-third of deans believe that it is “too slow.”

Deans were largely in agreement on the biggest hurdles to change on campuses: too few new dollars for investments, resource constraints on faculty and staff, and resistance or aversion to change at the institution.

Campuses are clearly feeling resource constrained. Moody’s Investors Services has found that two-thirds of institutions have either flat or falling net tuition revenue. That’s the cash on hand after they give out financial aid to invest in new programs and initiatives. Trying to find new revenue sources is one of the reasons many institutions are searching for new approaches to expand their enrollment and increase their revenue.

One strategy more campuses are looking to employ is online education. In one of the only questions with widespread agreement, nearly all of the deans surveyed said their institutions plan to add to their online offerings in the next decade. Nine in ten deans said their campuses will offer more online courses a decade from now than they do today.

After struggling to weather the storms that have roiled higher education over the eight years since the onset of the Great Recession, college and university leaders are left to wonder what’s next.

The decade ahead will produce winners and losers. Not all institutions will survive. Some will close, others will need to merge. So a more experimental and entrepreneurial spirit needs to emerge within institutions and the results of the survey of deans shows that they have the potential to lead that effort.

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