U. of Denver’s Griesemer on Strategic Issues in Higher Education

“The nature of change going on in higher education requires change at the most fundamental levels from an institutional perspective,” said Jim Griesemer, director of the strategic issues program, dean emeritus, and professor of management at the University of Denver.

Griesemer noted that universities exude a sense of stability and permanence. But now there’s a growing sense of unease and concern due to rapidly rising tuition costs, challenges to learning effectiveness, difficulty of graduates’ finding employment, and growing non-academic expenses. So, said Griesemer, “Could institutions as stable as colleges and universities be disrupted?”

The strategic issues program at the University of Denver convened a panel to investigate the underlying forces driving change in higher education and how the university can continue to operate within them. The forces included:

Knowledge society—The new economic order based on information creates a shift from manual labor to work requiring higher levels of education/skills.

Increasing costs—We need to control rising tuition while maintaining quality.

Shifting demographics—The changing ethnic mix means there are more of those who have traditionally had less income.

Declining affordability—There’s growth in tuition, relatively flat median family income (tuition is rising 10-15 times faster), and greater student debt.

Information ubiquity—Big data is driving business and allowing competitive advantages, and information is freely available. So, Griesemer asked, “What are the implications of having others give away what you are selling at a high price?”

Academic practices—Tenure is both a public and private good, but it’s going away. “If we care about the public good of tenure, we really need to address the reality of what’s happening and not just circle the wagons without dialogue or the possibility of change,” advised Griesemer.

Disruptive innovation—There are online courses, MOOCs, and free non-credit courses, plus competency-based eduation that assesses student learning rather than time, revises the role of the professor, changes the industrial model to mass customization, changes the pricing model, and allows partnerships with employers to build in relevance.

Increased competition—This has been brought about by declining affordability and alternatives to traditional learning.

Enrollment challenges—84.2% of small institutions had drops in both undergraduate and first-year enrollment from Fall 2010 to Fall 2011, and discounting rates are rising especially at small institutions.

Financial pressures—This is mostly thanks to a reliance on tuition increases.

To deal with all of these issues, Griesemer recommended thinking about how to differentiate your institution and make that differentiation clear, how to focus on value (that is, the relationship between perceived cost and perceived benefit, with the perceivers being students/parents and employers), how to create a culture of measurement, and how to build in institutional flexibility.