You Say You Want A Revolution?

How Higher Education Can Leverage Times That Are a Changin'

The 1960s were a remarkable time for higher education in the United States. After 100 years of the most rapid economic development the world had ever seen, college and university enrollments more than doubled in a single decade. With the largest influx of new students on American campuses in history, one might expect a corresponding increase in dropout rates. It never truly materialized. In fact, college degree receipt rates rose at a commensurate pace.

As such, the 1960s represent a high water mark in student success that we've struggled to achieve ever since. Between 1970 and 1994, the four-year college completion rate dropped by more than 10 percent. Here in 2016, a recent analysis of the U.S. Department of Education's Scorecard finds that only 55 percent of students at U.S. private nonprofit colleges graduate within even six years. The rate at public institutions is even lower. After six years, college students in any venue are unlikely to graduate at all.

The impacts on our economy have been staggering over the last 45 years -- and especially so when measured in terms of income equality. In 1969, the U.S. middle class represented 70 percent of the population. By 2015, it represented less than half. Moreover, the Pew Research Center now reports that the shrinking of the middle class is occurring just as rapidly in major metropolitan centers as it is in more troubled regions like Appalachia, the Deep South, and the Rust Belt. The middle class is being squeezed like never before -- and now no geography is immune.

So what happened in the 1970s that reversed the promising trends of the 1960s?
One answer is that continually increasing college enrollments -- and a corresponding increase in underprepared students -- finally caught up to graduation and completion rates. But that's not the whole story. If higher enrollments alone could cause such a precipitous drop, the signs would likely have been apparent in the decade prior.

Instead, the root cause seems to be the advent of Information Technology and ubiquitous electronics in the late 1960s. It created a seismic shift in the global economy commonly referred to as the Third Industrial Revolution, and it fundamentally changed the way many Americans viewed the value of a college education.

According the to the Bureau for Labor Statistics (BLS), new technologies demand more highly educated workers at first; but as technologies begin to mature, on-the-job training begins to make higher levels of education obsolete. So as IT and electronics became more commonplace in the 1970s and beyond, the new jobs being created didn't necessarily require a college degree. Contrary to what many of us might think to be natural corollary of the Third Industrial Revolution, the BLS now reports that only 27 percent of us need college education to do our jobs.

So in the 1970s, more and more people began questioning the endgame after a few semesters on campus -- and, to many, the opportunity costs began to be seen as higher than the return on investment. Despite the fact that college graduates were earning about twice as much as their peers by 1978, a Gallup poll conducted that year found that only 36 percent of Americans deemed a college education as "very important."

Lagging graduation rates notwithstanding, that figure stands at a record 70 percent today -- thanks at least in part to a recent explosion of innovation that has reset the technology maturity cycle several times over across myriad industries. Smartphones, industrial robotics, the Internet of Things, and host of other advancements have once again placed an emphasis on more highly skilled and educated workforce -- and therein lies the opportunity for higher education to be as strong a driver of economic equality at is was by the 1960s.

There are those who look at the Digital Revolution and question just how much longer it can continue. The truth of the matter is that we are only just beginning. Emerging technologies such as 3-D printing, precision genetic editing, Artificial Intelligence, and self-driving cars are evidence enough that innovation isn't slowing down and will eventually change just about every industry imaginable.

It's an outlook shared by World Economic Forum Founder and Chairman Klaus Schwab, who argues that we are now on the cusp of a Fourth Industrial Revolution that will exponentially increase the velocity, scope and impact of change. If that's the case, the technology maturity workforce model may itself become obsolete due to the fact that emerging technologies simply won't have the time to mature before being replaced by the next big thing.

Taken to its logical conclusion, this means a near-perpetual demand for skilled and educated workers that will materialize sooner than we think. Already, The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce estimates 3 million jobs will be left unfilled by 2018 because workers lack the requisite skills. Adecco reports that 2.4 million STEM jobs will go unfilled in the same year. Even the manufacturing industry will see as many 600,000 job vacancies by 2025, according to data from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute.

In this context, the current graduation and completion rate at America's colleges and universities should ignite a newfound sense of urgency to turn things around. And we can't just rely on economic drivers to get the job done. Colleges and universities must evolve with the times as well.

It could be new techniques in the way we recruit the students best positioned to succeed on a particular campus. It could be enhancements in the ways we monitor and intercept at-risk students before they drop out. It could be measures that increase resources by helping our campuses run more efficiently or reach more alumni donors. Or it could be even bigger steps, such as a mainstream embrace of Competency Based Education that can help non-traditional students keep pace with commercial innovation.

The student and economic successes of the 1960s were made possible by generations of educators who saw the world a changin' and took steps to change right along with it. The First Industrial Revolution gave birth to the higher education system as we know it today, as private institutions were created to deliver the skilled, educated workforce new industries demanded.

The Second Industrial Revolution was met with the G.I. Bill and the massive expansion of the state university systems that dramatically increased accessibility. The end result was record numbers of college graduates and economic opportunity that expanded far beyond the one percent.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution has presented us an opportunity to make just as positive an impact today. At a time when just 62 individuals hold the same amount of wealth as 3.5 billion of their fellow human beings, what could be more important to our shared fiscal prosperity?

Jeff Ray is the CEO of Ellucian, a company that drives student success in higher education via technology solutions.