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  • Dr. Mary Darden

Why higher education is facing an existential threat

Enrollment is down, cost is up and it is time to rethink college degrees.

There is a constant and sometimes acrimonious debate currently in both Austin and Washington about higher education — its value, efficacy, accountability, affordability, structure and more. Many legislatures, including the one in Texas, have been looking at basing institutional funding on outcomes and/or removing tenure. American higher education has been disrupted by thousands of for-profit educational companies — some offering degrees, certificates and other credentials.

The big underlying question is: Can we save nonprofit higher education?

Short answer: Yes. If we have the will.

Underlying all of this is the greatest existential hurdle of all: traditional student enrollment (mostly ages 18-22) has consistently been dropping for some time. This is the factor that weighs heaviest on the minds of most college and university presidents. Why is this happening? The reasons for the decline are deep-rooted and more than a little unsettling:

  • Extreme student loan debt and default.

  • Declining relevance of traditional higher education degrees.

  • Higher education’s too common disconnect between degrees and jobs in business, industry and government.

  • The multitudes of alternative options from the for-profit sector for certificates and quick-learn programs.

  • The painful fact that most states are putting less money into higher education.

  • Higher education’s extreme resistance to change — even existential change.

  • Antiquated recruiting and admissions processes for many institutions that are rapidly losing out to the institutions who are good at it (many of them are for-profit).

  • The declining birth rates.

  • The lack of sufficient niche development in a global market.

  • And the drop in confidence in our higher education system.

The Brookings Institution notes that in addition to the enrollment gap, there is a significant completion gap, with 10% fewer men completing in four years compared to women, with women now earning the majority of degrees at all levels.

All of that said, and this is one of our biggest points in entrepreneuring

training, 84% of the prospective student market is made up of “non-traditionals” (that is, students older than 22, many married and/or with children, and with full-time jobs), according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This market needs more assistance in connecting to the right program. They are looking for certificates, professional programs, graduate degrees, affordability, flexibility, convenience (online, evening), and often a number of other things that traditional higher education has frequently ignored or at least not focused on.

As a result, radical transformation of our higher education system is essential for today’s student, as well as society. We must do the hard work to become what we need to be now. Institutions must innovate to develop relevant and marketable niches in today’s global market. They need to connect the dots for students to internships and jobs.

In the end, the question becomes: Can we still save nonprofit higher education?

To survive, education must become increasingly flexible, convenient and affordable and packaged in new and creative ways to enable quicker completion. We must rapidly ramp up the transformation process for American — and even international — higher education to try to catch pace and hopefully someday exceed its decline.

This is, indeed, an existential challenge, but one which most institutions with the will, the vision and the sense of urgency can ultimately overcome.


Mary Landon Darden is the president of Higher Education Innovation LLC. She is the author of “Entrepreneuring the Future of Higher Education: Radical Transformation in Times of Profound Change” and “Beyond 2020: Envisioning the Future of Universities in America.” She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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