12/04/2012 02:30 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2013

Answering the Perception Problem

A trustee once told me that perception is reality in higher education. The comment didn't require a response but I wish I had made one. What I should have said is that the truth trumps perception in a world where principle and fairness should always matter most. In fact, the best leaders are not those who facilitate or duck and cover but individuals, or for that matter institutions, that espouse clear principles, act courageously, and mean what they say.

Higher education faces a perception problem that grows each day because of the confluence of politics, the media, consumerism, and marketing and communication false starts. The end result has put higher education on the defense. The calls for price controls to combat high sticker prices, increased regulation, and the need to provide greater access will likely begin with renewed intensity early next year. If higher education retreats to a fetal position or repeats old arguments, the results will further weaken the perception of the American public about education, making it a more fertile ground for reforms of all kinds.

Some of the reform arguments will be off the wall. Other arguments will have some merit. The best approach for higher education is to get out in front of the battle. It's leadership must shape the terms of the debate. Its faculty must innovate, protect the value of how they teach their students, and infuse their teaching with the technology that makes the experience better. It cannot lose control over the academic program but it's too late to hurry up and wait until the storm blows over. This isn't a fad or a political moment. The time has come to determine how we will best educate globally as America moves further into a post industrial, knowledge-based economy.

That having been said there are first steps to deal with the growing perception problem. If the faculty has the responsibility to refine the academic program to meet the needs of the 21st century, college administrators must also wake up quickly to the new realities. Some days what strikes me most about higher education is how willing administrators are to reinvent the wheel and emerge as the poster child for institutional inertia. The decentralization and complexity in type, program, and organization of higher education institutions mask the problem. When you hear that colleges are cutting costs, the story most frequently revolves around a slash in the tuition sticker price, employee layoffs, and occasionally mergers or closings. Some of us are left scratching our heads to ask are there are other ways to attack the problem?

One way is to take a hard look at the higher education business model. Are there first steps that can be taken individually, or even more productively in common, to demonstrate that the business leadership in higher education understands the disruptive system change on the horizon?

There are options. As I have argued before, colleges highly dependent on tuition or a combination of tuition and state support cannot see raising sticker prices as a viable funding alternative much longer. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation understood this point a number of years ago. They began to fund a series of pilot projects to look at how higher education could address its funding model by creating economies of scale to promote business efficiencies. Numerous other projects emerged and where there was a sufficient concentration of like-minded institutions, some interesting programs developed. In Pennsylvania, for example, the member programs of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, the Lehigh Valley Association of Independent Colleges, and the Southeast Pennsylvania Consortium for Higher Education represent excellent examples. Public colleges organized as systems also developed effective strategies, although bureaucratic guidelines sometimes diminished the effectiveness of central office mandates.

The point is that the time has come to get serious. Programs do exist that save substantial money. In a new business model, what efficiencies can be found in the collection of unit record data, course registration, and a deeper dive into common purchasing arrangements? Are there savings by combining aspects of legal, accounting, human resource management, facilities, mandated federal and state reporting, grant writing, admissions, and assessment that could be done in common? In the end, what institutions have in common is far more important than difficulties to establish firewalls to maintain privacy and integrity. What's more some of these efficiencies can be used to add programs, especially academic offerings in areas like foreign languages, where American education is at a clear competitive disadvantage. A redesign of the business model -- phased in over time -- shifts the focus to support of the academic program. It also softens the debate over the cost of higher education as these strategies go public.

Much of the rhetoric lately has been on the change to and defense of how we teach. It's time now to think more about how we deliver.