09/26/2012 06:53 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2012

We're at a Tipping Point

A generation of young people in, or heading towards, college are asking if it's worth it. These are Millennials (part of the massive Millennial Generation, born between 1980-1998), and they are trying to make sense of a post secondary education premise that is difficult to defend in the 21st century. The cost of a "traditional" four-year post secondary experience is becoming irrational, based on the reality of employment prospects and the suffocating debt these students will incur.

And that's what students are considering: Does this investment make sense? It's the right question, and it's a good thing this generation is starting to ask it. A 2010 poll found that 36 percent of high school students say that the high cost of college has them considering putting it off or skipping college altogether. Those who did commit to "college" have been far more eagerly pursuing non-traditional options: community college enrollment is up 17 percent from four years ago. The rising trend amongst this cohort group is to rethink traditional destinations and the traditional pathways earlier generations took to get there.

For college students, "personal satisfaction" is the top career motivator. The most desired career paths are often education and non-profit work. Luckily, they also recognize that $200,000 in student loan debt does not make sense for a $40,000 salary that might top out at $75,000... if the job is even available. While this generation is famously optimistic, they're starting to embrace pragmatism. That will mean a lot to colleges and universities, and institutions are starting to realize it.

Today, there still exists a holdover mentality that postsecondary institutions need only deliver a college experience. Tomorrow, those institutions will be defending a value proposition for their tuition, because countless graduates have marched away with a diploma and debt, but no sign of the life they invested in. We're getting closer to career services driving the value proposition of a school (as a brand). This will be the generation that demands prospective colleges compete for them, and demonstrate how the investment will fulfill financial stability and a career they want. Todays students call that a "life," and they are 100 percent willing to invest in institutions that deliver it. They won't, for long, entertain institutions that do not.

It's a tipping point, but that's a good thing. Institutions need to embrace their consumer, in the 21st century economy, and evolve to serve them. Recognizing that the student is now in control, and that the institution needs to evolve to serve them, is the critical step. Non-traditional institutions moved quickly to do that. Let's see how traditional four-year institutions embrace this reality.

The good news, for institutions looking to evolve, is that there are some very easy steps to take right away. The institutions need to commit to being truly student-centric. As such, they need to shift their organizational structure around understanding the interests of prospective students, offering an investment and experience that excites students to apply, enroll, and complete their course of study. Ultimately, that student-centricity can't end at the diploma hand-off. Institutions need to measure success the way students are now measuring success: Does the investment meet and exceed the expectations of the student? In other words, is the student graduating with an education, experience, degree, career, and financial reality that they want?

Students are exploring the best way to achieve the life they want. They're open to fresh approaches to achieving that, and they are wiling to invest in it. Hopefully, institutions will also be open to delivering the holistic solution that students are looking for.