Even Before Free College, Three Reasons Why 2015 Will be the Year of Higher Education Reform

I sat down to write a blog on why 2015 will be the year of higher education reform only to be trumped by President Obama's plans for free community college for millions of students. Luckily his proposal dovetails with my predilections for the year.

Over a 30-year career focused on improving our national education-to-workplace efforts, I have worked with and encountered brilliant, committed people doing energizing work. I have witnessed a startling evolution in the understanding of what works and what doesn't in making education relevant. I have heard politicians try to nudge our education system to change from the bully pulpit and put money where their words are.

Historically, many of these efforts were noble, admirable and even effective in their own realms. But our education system as a whole has proven remarkably resilient to change that is anything more than isolated and limited.

Real change needs more. Systemic change needs forces beyond individuals, individual programs, beyond even enlightened leaders. It needs the ground to shift. It needs larger planets to align.

As we enter 2015, I believe the ground under education is really shifting. And in my amateur astrological way, I believe three important planets have moved into alignment.

The Biggest and Most Important Planet: Economy and Demography.

As we enter 2015, these two forces, economics and demographics, are fundamentally reshaping our workforce and workplace.

The economy is back, growing by 5 percent in the last quarter -- getting up towards China's growth rate. But the economic furnace needs to be stoked to keep going, and it needs human capital (people) with the right skills.

And there we have a problem, because just as the economy screams for human input, we are faced by an exodus. Baby-boomers are getting old (sorry) and getting ready to leave their current careers. But these days, retirement looks less like golf and more like career-shifting. So they need retraining, and those replacing them need the training to fill the careers "retirees" are vacating. These are two very different education needs.

In some growth sectors, such as healthcare, a drought is already on the horizon. Industry gets it. Dawn Rose, Executive Director of the American Society for Healthcare Human Resources Administration (ASHHRA) of the American Hospital Association was about as blunt as you get on how well our current education system is prepared to meet workforce needs: "We are not going to produce enough people to fill the jobs."

And informed educators see the writing on the wall as well. To quote Barbara Vacarr of Encore.org, and a former college president, in a recent article: "Change is happening quickly. The clock is ticking. The alternative is not business as usual -- it's obsolescence."

Planet Two: Industry/Business Engagement.

The education reformer buzz phrase over the last few years has been "skills gap." Not everyone is convinced that this is truly a major woe of education, but the basic argument is that there are plenty of jobs and plenty of people looking for jobs -- just not enough people with the right skills to make a match.

The most obvious -- and in process -- cure for this is business engaging with higher education to shape curricula to make them relevant to business and industry needs. Business has long had a role in shaping local educational offerings as demonstrated at a recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation roundtable. Most of the examples were effective small-scale regional engagements. But a recent Chamber Foundation report rightly suggested that today's economic circumstances demand a much broader role from employers. Need and self-interest are powerful motivators.

Planet Three: Politics and Public Policy.

So we have the economic and demographic pressures, the urgency of business partners, and now we have that the one thing that could push it over the line. The political will to force change through. A pessimistic look at our nation's politics sees a house divided. And yet higher education might actually be one place that the two sides come together.

What unites them is support of a skills-based educational alternative such as competency-based education (CBE), which measures mastery of skills rather than endurance through curriculum.

CBE has had vocal support in the past, but there has never been a unity of purpose. The President should be commended for his efforts to foster a new educational mindset through making education more relevant and calling for greater accountability in the existing higher education system. He now may have an unlikely partner in his political opponents on Capitol Hill. The House voted 414-0 to advance CBE, and, by all indications, the new Republican Congressional leadership is prepared to advance the measure. Strange bedfellows indeed. But if both sides are looking for something to deliver together, educational change may be just the most convenient target of opportunity.

And as the CBE bandwagon picks up steam, it is picking up adopters--with big legacy education names such as the University of Michigan, Purdue University, and the University of Wisconsin System developing CBE tracks.

So, I am excited about 2015. These three planets have moved into position. These are national, societal trends rather than the urgings of education reformers. It will be change because of irresistible forces--like the educational reform tide coming in.

Now, I see a new question on the horizon. Not one about how do we get people to hear our hue and cry for change. But one perhaps even more challenging. Ensuring we make the right choices and the right changes.