09/05/2013 03:19 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2013

'3D Challenges' for Higher Education

When filmmakers want to give audiences a more immersive, visceral way to understand their work, 3D is often the tool of choice. As I scan today's landscape of challenges and opportunities for higher education, I find it helpful to think in a "3D" way as well, though the dimensions I focus on are: Demographics, Debt, and Digital Learning.


From 1996 to 2010, overall enrollment in degree-granting institutions increased 46% requiring colleges and universities to scale up programs and facilities accordingly. New England and the Midwest are now experiencing a decline in the number of high school graduates, prompting increased outreach to populations beyond the students who enter college immediately after high school. In fact, adult students are rapidly becoming the new normal. The National Center for Education Statistics notes that "In recent years, the percentage increase in the number of students age 25 and over has been larger than the percentage increase in the number of younger students, and this pattern is expected to continue."

The adult student population presents not only an opportunity for colleges and universities but also promotes healthy adjustments to the traditional delivery vehicles. Faced with pressures to balance school, work and life, adult learners are a motivating force behind the increase in online or hybrid classroom/online course offerings at many campuses. President Obama's call for innovation in higher education underscores the benefit of this trend for all students.


Particularly on the heels of the Great Recession, there has been much concern over the growing levels of student debt. One component of the conversation has to do with affordability. While I firmly believe we all need to earn our education, money should not be a barrier to education. On the student's part, work study positions or other part-time employment help encourage and reward motivation and time management. In addition, work study and internships burnish the job skills that make a student more marketable after graduating.

Colleges need to continue to find ways to bend the cost curve. But, in the near term, philanthropy, particularly at the higher education level, is a powerful means for addressing the nation's income imbalance. The impact of education is acutely evident when considering that the median earnings for young adults with a bachelor's degree is more than double that of those without a high school diploma. Charitable support for college scholarships has a demonstrable effect on raising the standard of living for thousands.

Another significant aspect of this conversation is the debt load after college, which in many ways is tied to career prospects. Profession based majors certainly offer a clear path to careers which can accommodate student loan repayment schedules. However, liberal arts programs that emphasize the attainment of vital skills such as critical and creative thinking, communication and problem-solving can be just as practical in leading to an astonishing array of rewarding careers. Whatever the field, President Obama's Pay As You Earn approach to student loans is a sensible tool to help students find the careers that best fit their talents and desire to contribute, without slanting the calculation in favor of jobs offering the most lucrative pay scales.

Digital Learning

The proliferation of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) raises important questions about the role of a residential college in our increasingly digital world. I maintain that there will always be a need and a place for residential colleges. Few would argue that the benefit of college lies solely inside the classroom. A campus experience shared with professors and peers, even for commuters, is a rich resource that cannot be completely replicated online. In addition, while MOOCs have opened up education across the globe, they face a credibility problem when it comes to credentialing--the ability to equip participants with proof of their learning.

I see MOOCs as a value added to the traditional college education, both as a tool and as a model for practices to infuse in the classroom. To thrive in the years ahead, colleges must adopt a learning paradigm that aggressively uses technology to integrate students at all levels in one class, allowing professors to teach to a variety of strengths and skills simultaneously.

3D Viewpoint

Just as elements in a 3D film "leap out" at the audience, so too are demographics, debt and digital learning distinctly prominent in any view of higher education. Over the coming years, these will significantly shape the increased competition for students among institutions and distance learning opportunities. The colleges and universities that thrive will be those which show students the return on their education investment by offering a practical preparation for life while providing meaningful, personalized experiences in and out of the classroom.