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The Perfect Storm: Factors Driving the Future of American Higher Education

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The last 20 years has seen the fragmentation and dissolution of many long-established business models, largely due to the rapid expansion of technology. Newspapers, publishing, and broadcast networks -- once large-scale organizations that controlled the delivery of information, news and culture to the American populace -- now fight for survival as they try to adapt to an on-demand marketplace where allegiance to one network or a few elite media sources has disappeared.

Higher education -- like the newspapers and TV networks of the past -- is a mature industry that is on the cusp of major transformations in the next two decades. When organizations don't anticipate and make the necessary changes, whole industries can disappear, such as we have witnessed with newspapers. This is not necessarily bad news, but every college and university will need to prepare for major transformations to maintain their quality, efficiency and relevancy in this climate. Let's take a brief look at the major drivers shaping the future of American higher education.

The first major driver transforming the delivery of higher education is ever-evolving technologies. At my own university, we realized the impact of this very clearly. In Fall 2013, we offered our first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), a free survey of forensics based on our master's program in the same area. Nearly 700 students representing 25 nations enrolled to take the online course. The scale of that is staggering to a university where our average class size is 17 students, and most are in-state residents or from nearby states. But the power of new technology breaks down boundaries and regionalism. A small college as much as a large university can deliver education on an international scale.

Technology is also reducing the need for -- or at least redefining -- the physical facilities that are the pride and often the admissions dealmakers for many of our institutions. A good example is today's university library. Most libraries have become less storage-centered and more centralized digital learning centers. Books are shared among universities; scholarly journals and articles are digital. Storing and archiving "things" -- books, in this case -- is now less important than having technology whereby students can access the wealth of human knowledge through their digital devices wherever and whenever they need to.

A second driver affecting higher education is cost. Universities have become too expensive, and many parents and students are unable to afford the tuition. At the same time, the media and federal government have targeted higher education for this very reason. In the face of the nation's changing demographics and economic challenges, many colleges and universities are in danger of being trapped by budgeting and financial models that could ultimately be unsustainable.

A third driver is the growing public perception that higher education is not a valuable experience. This is not necessarily a novel perception, but it arises as cost becomes an issue, especially when critics report that both salaries and employment rates are not high enough to justify attending a university. Although this is a difficult accusation to prove -- and lifetime earning statistics prove otherwise -- this perception should lead us to consider a stronger emphasis on career education and how our academic and co-curricular programs add value, not just costs and debt, to a graduate's life. Yet much of higher education in America is still designed to offer individual disciplines with a special emphasis on liberal arts. Allegiance to this traditional academic structure can hamper our ability to adapt successfully to emerging consumer career demands.

In many ways, the current situation could be called higher education's "perfect storm." It is predicted that many institutions will be forced to close during the next 25 years. New technology, increasingly more costly tuition rates, and new educational expectations will combine to make it difficult for colleges and universities following traditional models to find the necessary enrollment numbers.

Although higher education has an uncertain future, if we continually focus on student needs and seek ways to adapt, we can make the type of significant contributions in the 21st century that we did in the 20th. Higher education could prove to be America's most powerful and valuable export because in the end nothing significant can happen in a person's life or in our societies without quality educational experiences.