10/21/2011 09:40 am ET | Updated Dec 21, 2011

Where Will Innovation Begin in Higher Ed?

If there was any question that the current model for the vast majority of colleges is not sustainable for much longer, two pieces of news this past week should give the remaining skeptics yet more evidence.

First, was the news from a survey of economists that Americans' incomes, which have dropped some 7 percent since 2000, aren't expected to even recover those losses until 2021. What's more, a third of the respondents to the survey said today's college grads would fare worse than their parents' generation.

Then earlier this week we saw news reports of a previously published study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York on household debt which predicted that the total amount of student-loan debt will hit $1-trillion dollars before the end of the year.

Fewer than a hundred colleges and universities are probably immune from these various external pressures descending on higher ed. Those with big endowments, way more applicants than spots, and global prestige will likely need to only tweak their models a bit. Another 100 or so at the opposite end of the scale will close, merge with competitors, or be bought by for-profit colleges. So that leaves thousands of institutions in the vast middle that need to find a new model.

It's likely that multiple new approaches will emerge in the coming years, but given that most institutions in higher ed tend to follow others rather than lead, it's unclear where the innovation will begin.

To start building the college of the future, we need examples of new approaches to pricing, curriculum, governance, facilities, teaching, and of course, the academic workforce.

One approach I want to share is from Mel Schiavelli. He's a former provost and interim president at the College of William and Mary, and a former provost at the University of Delaware. Both are very traditional universities, of course.

Nearly a decade ago, after he retired, he was traveling in Pennsylvania when he read about an effort to start a new science-and-technology university in the state's capital of Harrisburg. He called the project's leader and the next day he was serving as a consultant.

Today, he's the president of Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. It opened in 2005, after city and business leaders failed to persuade existing colleges in the state to open a campus in Harrisburg. (At the time, Harrisburg was the largest state capital without a four-year university. Now, it has a different distinction: last week, the city filed for bankruptcy because of $310-million in debt from a failed trash incinerator project.)

After a career in traditional academe, Schiavelli had the chance to design a college from scratch with a specific goal and mission: to provide a work force for local tech companies and try to attract new ones. Of the 115 students who have graduated from the university since its founding, 106 of them are employed in central Pennsylvania.

Schiavelli was in my office the other day for a visit, so I asked him if any of the new approaches to higher ed he adopted at Harrisburg could be copied by existing universities.

"It would be difficult," he said. "So much of the debate about higher education in this country is driven by R1 research universities and their research needs. It's not about teaching and it's not about the needs of today's students."

Among the different approaches he put in place at Harrisburg:

  • No departments. Academic departments are silos built by faculty members to further their research and careers, Schiavelli said. "We needed institutional players," he said of the faculty members he was trying to recruit. He also needed professors who could teach across disciplines. The key to making his experiment work, Schiavelli said, was hiring the right professors.
  • No tenure. "We couldn't afford it," Schiavelli said. Instead the institution offers 12-month contracts, and is now considering multiyear contracts. Even without tenure, Harrisburg received 450 applicants for its first 12 faculty spots. All those hired had tenure or were on the tenure-track elsewhere. Ten of those faculty members are still at Harrisburg.
  • Corporate involvement. Many colleges have advisory boards made up of corporate executives who give advice on curriculum development. At Harrisburg, the corporate committees are much more involved, voting on curriculum, and, in some cases, members serve as faculty members. Many of the corporations also serve as sites for student internships, which are required.
  • Student amenities. There is no campus. The university operates from a single building in downtown. There are no sports teams or dormitories. It's really a no-frills operation. Sixty percent of the students are traditional college age. Twenty percent transfer in. Minorities and low-income students make up about half of the student body.
Like any higher-ed institution, Harrisburg has a specific mission, and these ideas seem to work for them. Obviously, they are not for every institution. Schiavelli believes he was able to adopt these new approaches to higher ed because he started with a blank sheet of paper.

But innovation can't just happen at new colleges. The last thing the country needs right now are more universities. New ways of providing a college education need to be tested at existing institutions, but it seems many presidents, boards, and faculty leaders are afraid to be the first to do something different.

Perhaps they're worried about offending some constituency, whether faculty, alumni, parents, students, or even prospective students. But kicking the can down the road isn't a workable strategy much longer. The road is about to end.

One president lamented to me recently about the amenities and services demanded by students and parents. I asked him why he felt the need to fulfill those demands. "Those students will go somewhere else," he said. Maybe. But this was an institution that could well afford to lose some applicants. If those presidents don't feel confident to make changes, who does?