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Posted: May 05, 2011

Higher ed’s brave new frontier: Part 1

Being "best" means nothing if the world wants "different"

Thomas Frey

The great reset has not yet finished its resetting process, and colleges are moving quickly into the crosshairs, with government funding, grants and student loans all harder to get.

With a mindset steeped in tradition, college leadership is pushing institutions to be, as the U.S. Marines like to say, "the best they can possibly be."
But being the "best" is meaningless when the rest of the world wants "different."

At the heart of the matter is an expensive academic infrastructure that is woefully out of sync with the business environment it is preparing students for. For decades, colleges have grown from simple to ultra-complex organisms funded by easy-to-get student loans, propped up by state and federal tax money, tons of grants, scholarships and other forms of support.

Where most of the business world has spent decades learning how to "do more with less," colleges have been content to simply do "more with more." But the money train is coming to a screeching halt, and college officials are spending their days watching the financial cliff draw ever closer.

While some may see at this as the end of the great college era, it is, in reality, the beginning of an entirely new opportunity. Over the coming years we will be witnessing the grand transformation of colleges and universities. Here are some of the changes they will need to make to survive.

So What's Changed

The obvious question to start with is simply, "What's changed?" Why is it that an education system that has produced some of the world's top scientists, engineers, and business executive is no longer good enough to serve today's young people?

The answers can be found in the following five areas:

1. From Information Poor to Information Rich
2. Fierce Competition
3. The Cost to Benefit Ratio is Changing
4. New Times Require New Intelligence
5. Shift from Individual Intelligence to Group Intelligence

The following are but a few of the reasons why changing times demand different solutions.

From Information Poor to Information Rich

In 2008, Roger Bohn and James Short, two researchers at the University of California in San Diego, decided to do a study to determine how much information people have entering their brains on a daily basis.
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Everyone today is being exposed to vast amounts of information, and their study was intended to quantify the amount of information we are all being immersed in.

But they added a rather interesting twist to the study. Because of the varying forms of information, and the difficulty in comparing video to magazines and newspapers, they decided to convert all information into one standard form of measurement - words.

Based on their final 2009 report, the average person in the U.S. has 100,500 words flowing into their heads on a daily basis. And this number is increasing by 2.6 percent per year.

So where are all these words coming from? In rough terms, 41 percent come from watching television, 27 percent - computers, 11 percent - radio, 9 percent - print media, 6 percent - telephone conversations, and smaller amounts from recorded music, movies, games, and other information sources.
As it turns out, the average American spends 11.8 hours every day consuming information. Many other countries are posting similar numbers. People today are being exposed to far more information than ever in the past.

Buried deep within the "other category," constituting far less than 1 percent is our formal education. Even for students attending college, their classroom studies constitute a relatively small percentage of the information they are exposed to on a daily basis. Colleges have yet to come to grips with the fact that they are not the only ones who possess the information.

Fierce Competition

Colleges are not only competing with each other for students, they are also competing for dollars and many of the dollar-streams are drying up.
National and local tax dollars are now at a premium and arguments that worked on decision-makers in the past are becoming far tougher to sell.
As a general rule of thumb, people are willing to pay more to get more. Other than some minor adjustments for inflation, they are not willing to pay more to get the same. And they are far from willing to fund the status quo when the rest of the world is getting more for less.

Business and industry is constantly being forced into "doing more for less." Where many colleges have built their brand around exclusivity and other barriers to entry, there will be fewer students willing to "play by the old rules" in the future.

The Cost-to-Benefit Ratio is Changing

Over the past 30 years, college tuition and fees have risen roughly 450 percent, compared with increases in median family income of only 150 percent. Accelerating at three-time the rate of inflation, the cost of college has now reached a breaking point.

Yes, for the independently wealthy and those in the higher income brackets, college may still be an acceptable investment. However, for any who are using student loans and going into debt, it becomes a far more difficult cost to rationalize.

Over the next few years a number of low-cost, high-value alternatives will begin to emerge, forcing virtually every traditional college to rethink their existing pricing structure.

New Times Require New Intelligence

In 1981, Professor James Flynn, a psychologist in the University of Otago in New Zealand, produced a study that showed IQ tests were improving over the years. This revelation has become known as the Flynn Effect.

He concluded that our ancestors would do poorly on IQ tests today because they deal with the workings of the current world - a world largely defined by science. The average IQ score has risen approximately three points every decade in the U.S.

This doesn't mean our ancestors were not very bright. Rather, different times require different intelligences and our ancestors were adept at the kind intelligence needed to adapt to the times they lived in.

IQ tests are also a measure of a person's ability to cope with the education system they are immersed in.

As the world around us changes, our need for new kinds of intelligence also changes. Education systems that produced stellar results 50 years ago are poorly suited for the diverse, rapidly evolving intelligences needed to thrive in today's world.
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Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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Readers Respond

Always enjoy your post on education Tom. As someone who teaches college students (Creative Problem Solving) and involved in outreach programs with HS and younger students, I'm seeing amazing things. One is how stressed students are compared to when I was in school and two, many are proactive in doing something about it for others. It is an interesting combination. It is very interesting to participate in how proactive and deliberate many students are about their college career and future. *They* run my class like a business that makes money, screw up, debate, and bring more to class from outside for action. It is awesome. THEY are taking the same ideas to how student can fund education. Sometimes I think if educators would find how to be more interested and interesting then lead and get out of the way, we will find these students thrive in doing. When it is real(interest and experience), it is real. By David Sandusky on 2011 05 05

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