Is Higher Education Suffering a Crisis of Budget, Buildings or Failure to Adapt?

The University of Chicago will be laying off more workers following a building spree, according to Crain's Chicago Business. (http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20160601/NEWS13/160609982/u-of-c-braces-for-more-layoffs-budget-cuts) Steeped in tradition, the school is rightfully proud of its rich and long history and the role it has played as a learning landmark in the surrounding community.

For University of Chicago staff and students, this news must be difficult to hear. Still many of us who are in higher education are not surprised given the state of colleges and universities in America. Inevitably, other institutions will surely follow suit until we, as a nation, change our attitude and approach to higher education. This is not a budgetary crisis, but a failure to adapt - and not just by the schools, but society as a whole.

As long as colleges continue to look toward the same sources of funding, and conduct business as usual, any state budgetary shortfalls are going to result in a cascade of failures in their colleges and universities. Private schools will not fare much better as the price of delivering an education continues to climb in order to meet the rising cost of underutilized buildings and rapidly transforming technology. At the same time colleges and universities focus on aggressive discounting to attract a declining traditional aged population resulting in less revenue to meet obligations while deferring critical investment.

The University of Chicago fallout will not only affect state lawmakers and college staff, but students and the business community as well. This failure to address an antiquated approach to education is costing our nation, and all of us should care, not just those being laid off, as this affects our future and our ability to compete in the global marketplace. This is not a higher education crisis, but an industry problem, and a national concern.

Sadly, this is the predicted outcome for many schools that subscribe to the old model of higher education which has been in play for as long as the University of Chicago has been around. We may very well be seeing this story repeated as other learning institutions resist change while adhering to a historical approach of educating our nation's workers.

For the past century, schools focused on increasing enrollment by creating grand campuses to cater to the traditional student who would walk through their doors, sit in a classroom, listen to lectures by professors and demonstrate what they had learned by repeating it in essays and exams. Upon completion, these students would earn a degree, be hired into a career that would carry them through to retirement and a gold watch. They would buy homes, raise families and educate their own children based on a model that was the same for their parents and even their grandparents. Under this highly successful system, it made sense to budget more dollars to school infrastructure. Buildings are permanent structures and have long been viewed as a solid and sound investment. What if in the information age the physical structure is actually a disadvantage and possibly limiting to the educational experience?

During this same period, colleges were seen as the authority on learning and the business community was able to draw upon a pool of qualified graduates, so there was little challenge from employers to transform the school's approach to meet the the community's staffing needs. Learning institutions dictated the curriculum, and businesses relied on colleges to keep pace with a slowly evolving marketplace. This model was so effective for so many years, that it became the deeply entrenched paradigm for higher education.

By the 1980s and 1990s, college budget priorities did not change despite the explosion of technology taking place in society all around them. The workplace was being transformed, and schools remained pretty much the same. The business community also began clamoring for better-trained workers who had the skill sets to navigate this new way of doing business. Some employers resorted to hiring workers from abroad, a move which weakened the American job market and at the same time, hastened the arrival of a global marketplace.

Schools and universities continued to function from a position of reacting to an emerging technological world, instead of being leaders by anticipating these changes and creating programs to foster learning for this new environment. Like non-traditional students, technology and the needs of business have been slowly, and almost reluctantly embraced by higher education.

While facilities are important, schools need to be focused on a curriculum and delivery method that accommodates the new economy - and that includes older workers, international students, those seeking certification as well as traditional learners. The days of having a degree take you from graduation to retirement are over, and while students and businesses seem to understand this, higher education has been slow to accept this new reality.

Technology has not only transformed how we deliver an education, but it has become an integral part of society, and much of a worker's career will be dependent on their ability to use and understand these advancements. And as technology evolves, so must workers' skills, which will require a lifetime of learning. It is at this point where higher education is falling down as it clings to the idea that what has worked in the past, is what will always be effective in the future. The needs of the employer, along with technology and delivery methods should replace facilities as the budgetary priority for higher education.

American industry can no longer expect a pool of highly trained, well-educated workers to hire from without investing in their education as a continuous learning model. Students can no longer expect that four years of schooling will allow them to advance in their careers. Society can no longer expect that an education using technology many times more sophisticated and complex than that which launched man into outer space to be limited to a specific building or time zone. Universities must be at the forefront of reimagining how education is delivered and expanding the opportunity/access across all life stages.

Higher education can no longer operate in a bubble; business and students must all understand that this is a connected system which is dependent on everyone being invested in education. If we, as a nation, do not begin viewing education as an investment model in our global competitiveness, we will be reading many more stories like the University of Chicago.