10/03/2013 05:54 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2013

The Fastest Way to Solve The Nation's Higher Education Woes? Start Listening to Working Women

There's growing buzz these days about how higher education must be transformed. It's no longer affordable and students are leaving school with unparalleled amounts of debt. The old bricks-and-mortar formula isn't optimal for today's increasingly digital, global workforce. I happen to agree with all of these statements.

What I don't agree with is how the majority of pundits point to traditional college-age students and lawmakers as the sole catalysts for this much-needed change. Certainly traditional students and policymakers can and will have a strong influence on how higher education evolves in the next decade. But in my opinion, the group that should be watched and listened to much more closely is the nation's working women.

It's quite possible that nobody else has more skin in the higher education game than today's working woman. The Huffington Post reported last year that the majority of American women (53 percent) are now breadwinners in their households, with nearly a quarter of married women surveyed saying they earn more money than their husbands.

As the president of Western International University (West), I've seen firsthand how increasing numbers of working women want to further their careers and their earning potential through higher education. It's exciting to witness. But the mere fact that working women are pursuing higher education in record numbers is not what has my colleagues and me talking -- it's how women are demanding more flexibility and affordability in their higher education options.

West conducted a national survey of women age 22-50 in July that resulted in two striking findings:

  • The rising cost of college is causing a major shift change in behavior with women choosing price over prestige when it comes to selecting a degree program.
  • Women overwhelmingly see online degrees as more achievable than traditional programs.

Can these findings be extrapolated to the larger population? As a leader in higher education with more than 30 years of experience in staying ahead of the needs of modern students, I absolutely think that they can for one simple reason: Working women are raising sons and daughters who will be -- or already are -- consumers of U.S. higher education. It makes sense that these women will be passing on their educational values to their children. As the cost of higher education continues to outpace inflation, it's reasonable to assume that financially savvy working women will encourage their offspring to pursue more affordable and achievable options that result in less burdensome college debt.

No one doubts the powerful influence of women in today's economy (women, after all, account for 85 percent of all consumer purchases and will control two-thirds of U.S. consumer wealth throughout the next decade). Yet "experts" continue to overlook this segment of the population when it comes to seeking out smart, executable, forward-thinking higher education policies.

That's a mistake. Working women need a place at the higher education table. Only by involving them can we have any hope of making much-needed and long overdue changes to our nation's higher education system.

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