Real Change, Demands Real Change In Higher Ed

Jun 2, 2020 by

Tom Watkins, education innovator and pioneer  

The future of higher education has been given a wake-up call with the disruption caused by COVID-19.

Almost immediately, school doors were banged shut. Some universities had the ability to hit the virtual switch, navigating to online e-learning, using available technology. The faculty and students were prepared to seamlessly transition to a new online learning environment. But for many, the transition was far from smooth. 

The New Education (R)evolution: Exploring E-Learning Reforms for Michigan -Tom Watkins, Wayne State University

Now, university presidents, faculty, students, and funders are in quarantine, planning to determine how best to traverse a new reality – when and how to re-open campuses this fall. What they make of this new reality with COVID-19 is now up to them.

Now – more than ever- we need an educated citizenry. There is no argument about the need for higher education and a better-skilled workforce that can thrive in our hyper-competitive, disruptive, transformational, knowledge economy where ideas and jobs can and do move around the globe effortlessly. 

But the question remains: Are the current institutions of higher learning positioned to help take the citizens of Michigan where we need to be to collaborate and compete on the world stage?

The tsunami of automation and artificial intelligence offers the potential for even greater disruption in our traditional ways of work in the next decade. 

Yet, the pressure to change at our institutions of higher education were underway long before the virus reached college campuses.

It should be clear:  this virus has been an accelerant – not the cause of the crisis facing higher education in Michigan and across America.  Far too many colleges and universities, both public and private, have massive institutional debt, are facing changing demographics, legacy costs, competition from for-profit educational institutions, soaring student debt, state funding cut backs, philanthropy drying-up and skyrocketing tuition and fees. With the advent of eLearning, students now have the ability to “attend” classes anywhere around the globe all while sitting in a bedroom or at a dining room table.

Many universities have gone on building sprees at a time when technology – especially e-learning with its anywhere, anytime, anyplace and pace learning – may effectively render dorms, lecture halls, and other campus edifices obsolete.

President Trump’s recent sanctions over China’s new security laws in Hong Kong will reduce the number of Chinese students studying in the U.S./Michigan which have been cash cows for some universities.

Standing Still Is Falling Behind

Have our institutions of higher learning been leading change, reacting to it, or ignoring the new realities? 

It is time to re-imagine our system of higher education.

Clearly, our institutions of higher learning are the envy of the world. Yet, the world is not static. Just because we have been at the top does not guarantee that we get to stay there.

As a first generation college grad, I am personally aware of how knowledge can change one’s life. Mine was enriched on multiple levels. The knowledge I gained along the way from professors, instructors, and my fellow students was earned at Wayne State, Michigan State, and Oakland Universities as well as at Madonna and Henry Ford Community Colleges. Yet, should not the delivery mechanism of knowledge change as radically as the times?

Universities must do a better job ensuring that students get their money’s worth (along with that of their families and the American taxpayer), for the investment made. 

Things That Can’t Go on Forever -Won’t

There is no doubt that Michigan’s major flagship universities – Michigan State, Wayne State, Oakland and the University of Michigan, will weather the storm.

They have solid leadership and endowments to help smooth out the rough patches they have been managing for some time. Yet, even these Ivory Towers are not immune from reality. As economist Herbert Stien’s economic law reminds us: “Things that cannot go on forever- won’t.”

We need academic and policy leaders to challenge the status quo and ask powerful questions:• Why does it take four years to obtain a bachelor’s degree?• Can we spread learning out over multiple years interspersed with hands on learning?• What is the right mixture of face-to-face instruction and e-or blended learning?• What jobs truly require a BA, MA or PhD?• Can more higher education courses be pushed down to our high schools?• What happens when your means of earning a living has changed so radically that you do not have the skills necessary to adjust to a new world order?

These are questions that more and more educational leaders and policymakers need to be contemplating and planning for.

Change That Produces Progress

Our community colleges and smaller private colleges have some distinct advantages during these challenging times if they can absorb the shock and reman nimble enough to focus on delivering true value to the students and families footing the bill. 

Reality has a way of catching up with us. With technology advancing, rising poverty and demographic change, we need to get deadly serious about preparing more and more of our citizens for a changing world.

Perhaps it is in our best interest to shorten the time in classrooms – be they physical or virtual – maximize the skills and knowledge gained that prepare students for their future and not our past. 

Can we?  Will we?

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. 

Tom Watkins’ eclectic career in academia spans 3 decades: Serving as Assistant to the President of Wayne State University-Detroit, Michigan State Superintendent of Schools, and as President and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, FL and Executive Director of the Education Partnership. 

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