Higher ed­u­ca­tion’s Ko­dak mo­ment

Col­leges must ad­just to evolv­ing learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment or wither away

The Washington Times Daily - - Metro - By Jamie P. Meriso­tis

The re­cent bank­ruptcy dec­la­ra­tion by Ko­dak, one of the na­tion’s most trusted brands for con­sumers, which once held a mar­ket share in ex­cess of 90 per­cent, is stun­ning. Ko­dak mis­took Amer­ica’s cen­tury-long love af­fair with its prod­ucts as a sign of mar­ket per­ma­nency, miss­ing the fact that cam­era phones, flip cam­eras and on­line shar­ing would erode its brand and ren­der it ir­rel­e­vant.

Amer­i­can higher ed­u­ca­tion should take heed be­cause it is fac­ing a sim­i­lar chal­lenge, with im­pli­ca­tions far more im­por­tant than the loss of a ma­jor cor­po­ra­tion.

To en­sure the na­tion’s long-term eco­nomic health, we need an ev­er­grow­ing sup­ply of col­lege grad­u­ates. But right now, the na­tion’s col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties are not in­spir­ing the con­fi­dence and mar­ket re­spon­sive­ness to make that a re­al­ity.

For proof, look at the grow­ing ques­tions about whether higher ed­u­ca­tion has priced it­self out of the emerg­ing mar­ket for skills and knowl­edge. Or read the re­cent re­search ques­tion­ing the learn­ing out­comes of stu­dents. One widely cited study says far too many stu­dents are “drift­ing through col­lege with­out a clear sense of pur­pose.”

It’s also hard to dis­miss the grow­ing num­ber of coun­tries with col­lege-at­tain­ment rates that far sur­pass our own, such as South Korea, where 63 per­cent of 25- to 34-year-olds are grad­u­ates, com­pared to less than 40 per­cent of their Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts.

Higher ed­u­ca­tion has served the coun­try’s eco­nomic and so­cial needs well for more than a cen­tury. In a re­cent Gallup/lu­mina Foun­da­tion poll, the vast ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans said they think get­ting a col­lege de­gree is crit­i­cal to their eco­nomic well-be­ing. But a ma­jor­ity ques­tioned whether col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties were able to de­liver job-rel­e­vant learn­ing, and most ques­tioned whether ris­ing prices are sus­tain­able.

So it’s clear that even though the reser­voir of public trust for higher ed­u­ca­tion is deep, it cer­tainly isn’t bot­tom­less. That means col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties must do all they can to keep and sus­tain the public’s con­fi­dence in higher ed­u­ca­tion.

They can do that with the grow­ing body of ev­i­dence from econ­o­mists and la­bor ex­perts. As many of these ex­perts have stated, ev­i­dence shows con­clu­sively that post­sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion is vi­tal to any­one who hopes to have and hold a good job in the 21st-cen­tury global econ­omy.

One key step is for higher ed­u­ca­tion to be­come re­spon­sive to the needs of all po­ten­tial stu­dents, in­clud­ing the large num­ber of un­der­em­ployed adults who re­quire new skills and train­ing, first-gen­er­a­tion stu­dents and re­turn­ing vet­er­ans, among oth­ers.

We also need to trans­form what “qual­ity” re­ally means in higher ed­u­ca­tion. In to­day’s so­ci­ety, the only def­i­ni­tion of qual­ity that makes sense is one based on what stu­dents ac­tu­ally learn and what they can do with the skills and knowl­edge they gain — in work and as cit­i­zens.

Col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties also must fo­cus on in­creas­ing higher ed­u­ca­tion pro­duc­tiv­ity — but not the kind that is about bud­get cut­ting to serve fewer stu­dents or about mak­ing in­di­vid­ual in­sti­tu­tions more se­lec­tive. In­stead, the true def­i­ni­tion of pro­duc­tiv­ity is one that of­fers a sub­stan­tial in­crease in high-qual­ity de­gree and certificate pro­duc­tion at lower costs per de­gree awarded, while im­prov­ing ac­cess and eq­uity for un­der­served pop­u­la­tions.

Pol­i­cy­mak­ers must work closely with em­ploy­ers and ed­u­ca­tion lead­ers to de­velop stu­dent-cen­tered strate­gies that in­crease pro­duc­tiv­ity. Em­ploy­ers need to ac­tively par­tic­i­pate in the re­design of a new, stu­dent­cen­tered higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem and in­vest in their em­ploy­ees through tuition re­im­burse­ment, via ap­pren­tice­ship pro­grams and by as­sess­ing prior learn­ing in work or the mil­i­tary.

Ul­ti­mately, though, higher ed­u­ca­tion must take con­trol of its own fu­ture. The world is in­deed chang­ing, rapidly, and col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties must seize the mo­ment to meet the ris­ing de­mand for high-qual­ity skills that are vi­tal to our col­lec­tive well­be­ing as a na­tion. If they don’t, they, like Ko­dak, risk the chance of be­ing gone in a flash.

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