THE BLOG
11/03/2014 11:10 am ET Updated Jan 03, 2015

What's the Future of Higher Ed? See It Now.

When The Union Institute & University invited several of my presidential colleagues and me to address the topic of "Changing the Face of American Higher Education" at a forum October 17 in Cincinnati, I opted to stress a single theme.

It's already been changed, and is accelerating in impact.

We administrators didn't do it. Our students didn't do it (though they represent a lot of social, cultural, and technological shifts that have contributed to it). Nor did our faculty do it; many professors remain comfortable with traditional pedagogy, and for that reason, change in instructional tools and techniques can be healthy. Many others whom I know welcome the opportunity to be liberated from conventional lecture formats, and to greet the personal technology of their students as a learning ally, not an enemy.

No, it is the larger, inevitable currents of history that have flowed like the recent Hawaiian lava toward nearly every campus -- sometimes slowly but always inexorably, causing alarm but strengthening our resolve to adapt and to preserve our missions. Demographic changes, rising costs, new technologies, and increased competition are forcing us, accordingly, to develop strategies to leverage opportunities.

After nearly 24 years in the higher-education presidency at three liberal arts institutions, I have never seen such ferocious competition among colleges and universities, such high degrees of expectations by our student consumers, and such exacting demands for affordability, accessibility, and accountability.

What we confront today, therefore, is a wholesale redefinition of the concept of colleges and universities as we know them. And that is not necessarily bad.

Here are some key trends as I see them:

Technology is already remaking our classrooms. Students have a greater role in driving the curriculum, filtering knowledge and course requirements through technology, and interacting with their counterparts in other nations, in real time, via Skype and other "smart" classroom innovations. Traditional examination formats will continue to rely less on regurgitation of knowledge, and more on regeneration of it. Because their future employers will expect a high degree of creative problem-solving skills, those students who can refine, reinvent, or redirect ways of using conventional information and knowledge-based skills will garner the most exciting entry-level positions and the greatest entrepreneurial advantage.

Simultaneously, traditional academic department structures are being redefined. Interdepartmental course offerings, collaboration on global study-abroad and other initiatives, and the pairing of once-separate disciplines form a new academic model. This model demands collaboration with other institutions and especially non-higher-education partners, as budgets and resources continue to shrink, and student demands and concerns about institutional competitiveness and relevance inevitably increase. As my colleague E. Gordon Gee of West Virginia University comments, "Once, it was a matter of 'publish or perish.' Now it's 'partner or perish.'" His words will continue to resonate into this century.

Student services with a focus on personal wellness, safety and security, career advising and placement, leadership development, acceptability, and direct support for the growing ranks of non-traditional students are driving institutional priorities and budgets. What began as service learning nearly a generation ago will lead to innovative concepts of social leadership and advocacy, philanthropy, and engaged citizenship as new paradigms of "community" emerge.

Because of the reality of terrorism and cyber crime, which are here to stay, our campuses are becoming fortresses of institutional and intellectual weaponry, while the constant threat of litigation over unsatisfactory grades, graduations, faculty appointments, and amenities is requiring more legal services.

All of this is intensifying the competition that already exists among colleges and universities, though somewhat eventually on a reduced scale because institutions that do not change, or adapt well to change, will go out of business. Those that are strong, adaptable, innovative, and, for want of a better word, gutsy, will find like-minded company as they establish regional centers of educational specialization and excellence, absorbing some formerly comprehensive, independent campuses, and finding ways to flourish in a mix of residential, international, research-oriented, and technologically interactive learning experiences.

The goal of those experiences will be guaranteed employment, personal security, and social status, along with measurable contributions through research to humankind's age-old enemies. The equation must balance; there will be no variables because only those institutions providing the guarantees I just mentioned will be around to teach. In addition to providing attractive websites, cheerful admissions tour guides, and campus visitation days, colleges and universities will be expected to offer the coming technological version of a contract for services to be rendered. I'm sure that soon, there will be an app for that.

Finally, the role of the faculty has been changing and will continue to evolve in the coming years. Reports abound of colleges wanting increased productivity from faculty. A number of my peers at private colleges are talking about increasing teaching loads, as well as expanding mini-term, summer program, and online offerings. Most say that a new trend is heavier teaching and advising loads and less voice in governance.

Due to the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, colleges are no longer permitted to set a mandatory retirement age. As a result, faculty are teaching further into their 70s, and we have fewer spots for younger instructors. Older faculty traditionally teach lighter loads, meaning that colleges are using more adjuncts to meet load needs.

Faculty are also being expected to take a greater role in fundraising and student recruitment. The late George Keller, former Professor of Higher Education Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, once said that small private colleges needed to have endowments of $100 million or a critical enrollment mass of 1,000. I suggest that because of the factors mentioned above, that figure has moved to $150 million or a critical mass of 1,500. Institutional advancement and enrollment offices cannot do all of the heavy lifting; they need the active support of faculty for writing grant proposals, engaging alumni, recruiting and retaining students, and relaying the institutional message and brand.

Because government support is flat and declining, fundraising is recovering from two significant economic downturns, and endowments have taken a hit, colleges are borrowing more money to preserve market share. At-risk colleges with fragile enrollments and lean endowments confront the likelihood of being acquired, merged, operated as branch centers, or morphed into other variations on the traditional residential model.

When all is said and done, however, I believe that our institutions will continue to be intellectually relevant, socially beneficial, and economically vital engines of human life, commerce, and, yes, security. If anything, our colleges and universities -- in whatever form they appear in coming generations -- will remain the best single investment of our national attention, resources, and reverence.

Harvard President Drew Faust, writing in USA TODAY (October 23, 2014), notes that "college helps students see themselves differently, giving them the room and the license to imagine new possibilities." She concludes, "The value of higher education is embodied by people who dream bigger and achieve more, who create their own futures and shape their own destinies."

In all the history of higher education, nothing has changed that central fact. For colleges to honor that trust, however, more will be expected of us than ever before. The good news is that there is much opportunity to be found as we go about understanding and responding to the changes that have impacted higher education so universally. And in that lie our greatest continuing prospects for survival and relevance.

Dr. Scott D. Miller is president of Bethany College and M.M. Cochran Professor of Leadership Studies. Now in his 24th year as a college president, he serves as a consultant to college presidents and boards, and edits "Presidential Perspectives," a higher education leadership series written by college presidents for college presidents.