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Big-Time Change Ahead for College Campuses

collegeLast week I wrote about how disruptive innovation from mobile technologies is turning the banking industry upside down. Now it’s higher education’s turn. As a parent footing the bill for a college student, I say it’s about time!

An article in the Wall Street Journal reports that since 1990, the cost of attending college has increased at four times the rate of inflation. Meanwhile, student loan debt is approaching $1 trillion. And half of recent college graduates don’t have jobs or don’t use their degree in the jobs they find.

Is this an industry ripe for disruption or what?

According to the article, Georgia Tech, a highly respected engineering school, is offering the first online master’s degree in computer science. More important, the program will cost about one-fourth of the traditional on-campus degree. Granted, colleges have been offering various online courses for years. But this move by Georgia Tech significantly alters the playing field by offering a complete graduate program at a fraction of the usual cost.

What makes higher education so eligible for disruptive innovation?

For starters, the educational industry still operates off a model that was designed to allow students to return to the farm during summer. Farm workers in the US today make up less than one percent of all wage and salary earners. Birth rates in the US are declining and our over 60 population is the fastest growing. And for the most part, classes and curriculum are designed for the convenience of the professors, not the students (i.e. customers).

At the same time, colleges are increasingly pricing themselves out of reach. Large numbers of students can no longer afford college tuitions. And the level of debt they must take on is reaching the point where the return no longer justifies the investment.

Finally, neurological research shows that the traditional classroom model is one of the least efficient learning methods for the human brain. If the U.S. wants to retain its position as the global leader in innovation, we need to start making much better use of our students’ brainpower.

What do colleges need to do to prepare for disruptive innovation?

The same things the bankers are doing, starting with cutting through the denial. They also need to stop looking at academia as some sort of sacred, untouchable institution and start looking at it as a business. I guarantee you their customers are already doing this.

Most important, they need to question everything they hold dear about who they are and what they do – starting with their own estimation of the value they provide. Other than public employees, I can’t think of any group that holds a greater sense of entitlement and a more inflated estimation of their own market value than college professors (and I am an adjunct professor so I speak from experience!).

This helps to explain why an Amherst faculty committee recently voted against online classes because “they don’t support the school’s mission of learning through close colloquy.” Meanwhile, a faculty council at Duke University voted against granting graduation credits for the school’s online courses. Of course, the fact that Amherst professors pull down close to $140,000 a year, while Duke professors earn an average of $180,000, had nothing to do with those decisions, right?

College professors have a right to feel threatened. After all, their livelihood is at stake. But what they’re going through is no different than any other industry. If they wake up and smell the burnt coffee, they can still play a role in shaping what the new educational industry will look like. If not, someone else – probably from outside the traditional educational industry – will do it for them.

And that’s the hardest part to see. The human brain wants to believe that what made us successful in the past will continue to do so in the future. So when we’ve had sustained success, it can be hard to let go of the “we’ve always done it this way” thought bubble. Instead of seeing threats, we see barriers to entry that will keep competitors out because “nobody knows our business like we do.” That’s how outsiders with no preconceived ideas about an industry can swoop in and completely redefine it.

Hallowed halls and ivy-covered walls won’t be going away any time soon, partly because there is so much tradition behind them. But they will likely become a luxury niche in an educational industry dominated by online learning. At the very least, the size, shape and function of the classroom will undergo dramatic change, combining a limited amount of personal instruction with the efficiency of online technologies.

Disruption can be scary to those inside and outside the industry. As a lifelong learner who often gets frustrated with the gross inefficiencies of our current educational system, I can’t wait to see what the new model looks like!

Call to action: Ask, what could disrupt our industry and what could cause us to not see it coming?

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