10/23/2014 02:40 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2014

The Shape of a Radically Pragmatic College Education

In the five years preceding 2011, higher education enrollment remained constant. In the two years of 2012 and 2013, the number of college students fell, with the decrease evenly split between traditional and non-traditional students. There were fewer students in 2012 than in 2010, a disturbing trend for learning institutions accustomed to an expanding market. More shocking still is the reporting by the New York Times that 33 percent of universities and colleges will be in danger of closing and are on an unsustainable fiscal path in the next decade should the trend continue.

The transformation in higher education is already here; the question is how learning institutions respond. Will they attempt to restore what has worked in the past, relying on tried and true methods or will they renew the industry by designing an educational system geared toward the future, one based on technology and creative partnerships within the community?

The answer seems to be a combination of both -- relying on the best of our traditional approach and renewing the system through innovative solutions may just create the radically pragmatic approach needed in the new global economy.

Students aren't questioning the value of an education, as evidenced by older workers returning to the classroom. What they are questioning is the model that has been used for decades, one based on attending courses in person and hearing a lecture, then testing later in the semester. They are seeking greater flexibility in the delivery of the information and schedules, which accommodate a less structured day. The current model, while still proving to be valid, will be challenged by students' expectations in a world where technology transforms the way information is delivered and applied in real time. Not only are they seeking educational opportunities that allow for incorporating technology into their learning framework for their future careers, but also those institutions that utilize it in the learning environment.

The existing four-year college program will have to embrace emergent technology and bring it into the classroom to satisfy the student of the future.

Demands on student participation are changing as well; even those seeking degrees in STEM fields are going to be expected to do more than learning theory or memorization. While a variety of delivery methods will be offered as an alternative to the traditional classroom setting, learning will be more interactive, faster paced and more in line with today's job market and the expectations of employers. Employers are less willing to prepare workers for jobs and are looking to hire those who are ready to hit the ground running. The classroom of the future will prepare students for this reality.

Technology means greater participation from both students and faculty alike, with immediate feedback. These changes are already affecting all areas of study and degree programs and are expected to grow as colleges and universities embrace technology in the learning environment.

The student of today is far more technologically sophisticated, and they are interested in institutions that can serve their needs. Prospective students are more likely to question the bandwidth of the college network and wifi, computer labs or 3D printing, rather than the dormitories. Older students and employers are looking for accessibility to online resources and the ability to customize programs to fit with their jobs and family life.

Course requirements are going to have to allow some leeway for specialization at every stage of the journey and the reality of a rapidly changing landscape to accommodate these changes. At Champlain College, the upside down curriculum has students in their field of study in year one. This provides an opportunity to better understand the field of study from the very beginning. It also values the best of Liberal Arts traditions in developing the whole person and critical thinking within the context of the student's chosen passion.

One such field is the study of computer languages. Today, workers can be assured employment if they have skills in the safe bets of Java, C++ and C#, but what about tomorrow? Currently, open source projects are bringing thousands of new languages online and only time will tell which ones will become the next in-demand language. Education has to be prepared to rapidly shift gears to accommodate the marketplace, which will ultimately determine whether Dart or Golang will be the next big language. But how can schools anticipate those needs where dramatic changes in business affect the course offerings? By reaching out to the corporate community, those companies that draw upon higher education for their labor pool, in order to provide input into what skills they require from workers. This requires creating ways to position and empower faculty to engage industry.

One approach may be to develop sabbaticals that send faculty outside the walls of the university into the heart of the global emerging industries, similar to the model SAP utilizes in sending their high potential employees to emerging economies. The goal is to "support entrepreneurs, NGOs, and government agencies, with the aim of positively impacting the regions economically and socially; [the employees] also gain a better understanding of how to effectively operate in these geographies."

The stress of the pace of transformation in the global economy has the greatest impact on the cost of higher education. Providing cutting edge technologies is an enormous investment for learning institutions already saddled with financial upkeep of brick-and-mortar facilities. Schools and students can no longer shoulder this burden by simply increasing tuition. We must find new ways to create value for our economy and offset the cost that will cripple so many institutions under the current structure.

Forward-thinking institutions already have formed partnerships with employers in their communities, seeking to provide courses that translate into more desirable and needed skills along with programs designed specifically for the advancement of workers. When a company invests in their workforce, it will likely mean investing in higher education institutions by developing courses and degree programs tailored to their organization or industry, and being willing to offset the cost of that training.

The future of higher education is here now; the sector is in the initial throes of a major transformation and it will continue to evolve. The question will be whether we embrace the changes -- and opportunities -- technology has given us, and work collaboratively to ensure higher education remains relevant to the needs of students and employers. Schools are going to have to work harder to form relationships in the business community that align with the values of the institution and to communicate the ROI of continuing education to workers already entrenched in a career path. These four groups -- colleges/universities, faculty, students and employers -- will together determine the future of American higher education.