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Tough Times for Private Higher Education

Those of us “seniors” old enough to remember the promises and pitfalls of the nascent technological revolution promised in the latter half of the twentieth century, can recall both excitement and trepidation. On the excitement side of the ledger, we were promised dynamic knew pedagogies, linked classrooms, 24/7 connectivity, the ability to interact with individuals from around the world asynchronically. It was to be a new world of learning and learning opportunity. Faculty and students would be provided tools unheard of and even undreamt.

On the fear side of the ledger, we were warned that changes to higher education would come and be profound. Traditional ways of teaching would disappear. Faculty would move from “the sage on the stage; to the guide on the side.” Institutional budgets would be strained because technology (computers on desks) had a shelf life of only five years, and everyone needed a computer on her desk. Fewer faculty would be needed because a pedagogical approach using promised technology would need fewer faculty (the MOOCs are a good example). The very tectonic plates on which higher education was based would shift.

While far more positives and negatives pertaining to the promised technological revolution can be listed, those above make the point. The onslaught of the revolution was met with much hope but also much trepidation. The feelings of great promise and fear stayed with us throughout the eighties and nineties and into the twenty-first century. Some change—but nothing to fear. The classrooms of the twentieth century seemed intact.

If the onslaught of technology did not concern us, the changing/shrinking demographics, the competition, and the overall questioning of the value of higher education, especially a liberal arts education, should. Throughout my career, I have been warned of the demise of the private not-for-profit institutions. It was a dire warning but not much happened--until now. Moody’s has reported that eleven private institutions a year are closing (Inside Higher Education). The dire prediction is no longer a prediction but a reality.

Seemingly, nothing can change this unfolding situation. There is no return to “the good old days.” The only thing that can change is our private institutions. A new vison based on the above-mentioned challenges must be crafted. Unfortunately, those institutions unwilling or unable to change may well become part of the growing number of closing institutions.

What can be done? What might this change look like? Successful institutions that navigate these dangerous times will be led by visionary leaders--those who can “see around the corner” (in the words of Bill Gates) and anticipate the road ahead. These leaders will identify new markets of students, develop a pedagogy that does not rely on the credit hour as a measure of “learning,” incorporate the liberal arts into the mainstream professional programs, understand enrollment management as a science and not the traditional admissions operation, adapt pedagogy to various student learning styles, partner with corporations in the co-education of students, open wide the doors to diversity (in all its meanings), integrate technology throughout the campus, and develop significant student pipeline programs with foreign university partners, and use tuition as a marketing tool and not as an ever rising behemoth.

Clearly, these are tough times for our private institutions. These are the times that will send us to extinction or distinction.

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