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Higher Ed. Needs to be Innovative to Serve Growing Demand

There is no way that the country can crank out enough college graduates to meet President Obama's goal of leading the world in the percentage of citizens with college degrees by 2020 unless higher education embraces radical innovations to become more efficient.

That was the sentiment of a panel gathered yesterday at the Center for America Progress to discuss a paper, Disrupting College: How Disruptive Innovation Can Deliver Quality and Affordability to Postsecondary Education by Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, Louis Caldera, and Louis Soares.

The current business model for higher education is broken, said Soares, director of the postsecondary education program at the center. Policymakers can no longer be caretakers of traditional colleges and universities, but rather need to expand education for students through mandating real changes, the authors suggest.

The paper proposes the theory of disruptive innovation could be applied to higher education to transform it to be more convenient and affordable. A big part of the answer lies with technology, the authors believe. That is already happening on many campuses, as 29 percent of students in 2009 reported taking at least one online course, said Horn, executive director of education at the Innosight Institute. By 2014, the authors anticipate it could be 50 percent.

For public universities to operate in new ways, they will likely need to be managed at the state system level of higher education rather than at the individual level, which struggles to evolve, according to the paper. Private universities should create autonomous business units to navigate this disruptive transition, it proposes.

Higher education also needs to focus more exclusively on teaching and learning, the authors write. Over the years, colleges and universities have tried to be "solution shops, value-adding process businesses, and facilitated user networks"—too many complex and confusing roles that have led to significant overhead.

The authors are challenging colleges and policymakers to rethink some of the basics, such as credit hours and seat time, and, instead, allow students to progress based on competency and mastery.

Western Governors University , in which students complete bachelor's degrees on average in 30 months with online classes, was highlighted yesterday as a model of innovation. Students, most of whom work full time and are on average 36 years old, choose from one of four majors and move through their studies as they master the material, said Robert Mendenhall, chief executive officer of WGU, based in Salt Lake City, Utah. This simple approach allows the school to keep tuition down—$5,800 a year—and the institution does not rely on state subsidy.

Eric Finderhut, chancellor of the board of regents for the state of Ohio, said that higher education is clearly "ripe" for disruptive innovation and states' policy leaders need to lead the way to moving barriers.

Christensen, who is also the author of Disrupting Class and The Innovator's Dilemma and has applied the theory of disruptive innovation to corporate America. And, on Tuesday, he made several comparisons to the need for higher education to transform just as the business world has had to adapt to a changing marketplace. He called on adequate funding for education to fuel the next generation of innovation and emphasized the importance of thinking about education along a seamless continuum of K-12 and beyond.

Tuesday's panel also featured a voice from the administration, Roberto Rodriguez, special assistant to President Obama on education. "In higher education, there is a moral opportunity to return to core principles of knowledge and learning and move away from a revenue- and prestige-driven culture," he said.

Rather than being a pathway for a talented few, higher education is becoming a prerequisite for success. While access has improved, the focus now needs to be on persistence and that calls for new strategies for degree attainment, especially for low-income and first-generation students, said Rodriguez.

The panelists all recognized limitations in resources and the discussion often came back to the theme of improving productivity—doing more with what colleges have now.

Martha Laboissiere, associate principal with McKinsey and Co., LINK said the potential for improving degree productivity was "huge" and there are plenty of best practices already in existence that colleges can use as models. Some campuses have optimized noncore services. Others have improved monitoring of student progress, redesigned instruction, and developed business models with more efficient supports.

However higher education goes about change, there was consensus among the panelists that reform is needed as business looks to colleges for problem-solvers and critical-thinkers to fill the jobs of the future.

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