Imagine the Video: The University of the Immediate Future (Part I)

Welcome to another entry in our Imagine the Video series: all the insight and substance of a long-form video interview packaged into an easily-consumed, informative read. We give you the content, you imagine the rest. (Click here to read our previous entry.)

In this episode, Rick and Sam are on opposite sides of the country when a check-in phone call becomes a deep-dive into the subject of what the “University of the Immediate Future” might (and should) look like for institutions wishing to remain successful and relevant in these rapidly changing, technologically driven times.

In part one of this three-part series, Rick and Sam discuss:

  • The population decline in 18- to 24-year-olds and its implications for higher ed
  • The expectation for varied modalities and delivery models from prospects
  • Why the adoption of blended modalities is impeded on many college campuses (to their detriment)
  • Breaking down silos that inhibit change

…and more.

Sam is at home catching up on the latest higher ed intel between shifts of dad duty and Rick is in Santa Fe, digging into marketing research between sight-seeing and fine dining. You can picture the scene…

Now imagine the video.

·  ·  ·

Rick: Can you hear me now, Sam?

Sam: I can hear you and I can see you.

Rick: Video conferencing is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?

Sam: I think so.

Rick: When it works, technology is amazing.

So, what I called to talk to you about today is an idea that’s been percolating: the University of the Immediate Future. Things are changing so fast; the whole notion of what colleges and universities will look like—in a very short time—will turn out to be very different from what we are picturing today.

Sam: I think you’re right. You know, this ebbs and flows; it seems like it probably follows the economy, or what’s going to happen next in the economy. It wasn’t too long ago that we were talking about 20% of the colleges and universities closing because of declining demographics or broken financial models, but that didn’t come to fruition in the immediate future. I think we underestimate the fortitude of higher education and its ability to remain relevant.

Rick: Yeah, or the speed of change. All those pressures are certainly still with us, and all the while, customer behavior has changed. The economy has changed. Population projections have changed. I just looked at a chart that showed population through 2037. It does not look hopeful for traditionally-aged students. And even in the next five years, until 2022, we’re going to have fewer 18- to 24-year-olds. That has big implications. I think that the drop was only 4% between 2020 and 2022, but a 4% drop—those are people. Those are tuition dollars.

Sam: Yeah, and with too many higher ed options it doesn’t bode well for those who exclusively serve that age group in the way that they are serving them now, in a traditional residential format.

Rick: I think there are a lot of institutions hanging on by their fingernails.

Sam: Oh yeah, of course.

Rick: But they’re hanging on.

Sam: And to some degree, doesn’t “hanging on” describe the business model of higher education? We’re not supposed to be turning huge profits. We’re not supposed to be generating massive piles of money. But we are supposed to be investing in our missions, and being judicious with our revenue. And as for tomorrow…

Rick: Tomorrow. What’s going to happen? How does an institution prepare, or equip itself to be more sustainable?

Sam: Well, that’s a pretty broad question, but I think primarily they have to find more relevant means of delivering their academic experiences.

Rick: It’s been interesting to see how higher ed has tried to expand its market. I remember, in the late ’70s (I’m sitting in my “way back machine” here) the introduction of adult learning modules, degree completion programs, and the process of taking most programs off campus and moving them into population centers where adult learners who had not had opportunity to complete a degree could do so in an accelerated program.

Sam: Right.

Rick: Those were awesome and generated a lot of income and attention. It was interesting to be part of an institution that was heavily involved in that, at the time. Those programs were seen as “sub-par” brands, and institutions held them at arms length so that they wouldn’t mar the image or brand of a traditional, residential program.

Sam: Right. And to some extent, residential undergraduate non-profit institutions still do that.

Rick: And yet, almost everybody has those types of programs.

Sam: Everybody has them. The quote-unquote “successful” (obviously we don’t see the books on some of these), stand-outs have resolved that sense of quality. Like, what we deliver online or what we deliver in the centers off-site and to whom we deliver it, is of equal quality.

Rick: Today, a variety of modalities and delivery models are expected—they’ve proven their value and viability. Prospective students, of all ages, anticipate that these options are available to them: I can go to class on a campus, I can take an online class, I can do an independent study and, if I’m so inclined, be part of an adult learner cohort.

Sam: I think the blending of modalities is something that hasn’t happened as quickly as I thought it would, to be honest. I don’t think they’re infrastructure-related problems. Most of the institutions we’re describing and that our readers are thinking about have infrastructure in place to deliver coursework online. They have infrastructure in place for a residential campus where a student may go to a lecture hall and take a course from a faculty member, and then go back to their room and sleep a good night’s sleep. And they probably have some extension campus where they deliver graduate programs in the neighboring area, right? So if the infrastructure is in place for this, why aren’t institutions more inclined to send or allow students to dabble in each of the delivery methods?

Rick: Well, let’s go back to how they were founded. Each of those delivery methods was established in a bit of a silo, and they were charged in most incidences to figure out a way to attract adult learners to a degree program. Go create something that people will buy, and can actually complete. So there wasn’t a lot of thought given to how 40 years later we might want to merge these two.

The same thing happened with online: “How do we make this work?” The pace and the calendar that we use online is not the same as the semester, or tri-semester, or quarter model that we use on campus. So you have an academic calendar for the residential program, most often in semester blocks; you have an adult degree completion program that is set up in short, cohort-driven modules that you can complete in six, seven or eight weeks; and then you have online programs that can be self-paced so you can zoom through a course when those three calendars don’t line up. It’s difficult for an institution to develop a seamless way to align the academic calendar to make those things happen. It’s not impossible, but it’s an issue.

Sam: Perhaps, but it’s a human issue—it’s not a financial issue, to be honest with you, because the investments we’re making in undergraduate residential programs far outweigh those other two modalities. Far, far outweigh. So when we think about where an institution should be investing product hours, it’s in figuring out how someone can get through all of those programs at the same time. Michigan State has already piloted having first-year residential undergraduates take coursework online. There’s enough science out there to say some things would be delivered best online, though we’re delivering them in person, paying a faculty member, or an adjunct, or a set of adjuncts, or graduate assistance to deliver those things currently. There’s enough motivation and rationale to blend modalities, and I think the needle should be moving more quickly than it is.

Rick: Certainly faster than it is.

Sam: Well, you bring up academic calendar—why aren’t institutions who are hurting for revenue open all year around? Right? Bain and Company does a study at Arizona State. They find out, “Hey, you’re closed too much.” Well, duh. Yeah. You’re closed too much. Most institutions are. At some point, that has got to be motivating: to capture that revenue back. And we’ve got to find ways to maximize those things. I would bet dollars-to-doughnuts that you would find 18- to 24-year-olds happy to accelerate their degree, get it done in three-and-a-half years or whatever, or do summer research for one summer, and get the rote stuff out of the way.

There’s some low-hanging fruit. I’m not suggesting that it’s easy, but if we’re talking about 450 years of precedent to be off during summer and go farm… I don’t know. It strikes me that the people who are getting attention for mixed modality—like Southern New Hampshire, like Bay Path, like Arizona State—are exploring ways to maximize their infrastructural resources.

Rick: Absolutely. So one of the characteristics that the University of the Immediate Future is going to have to embrace is the reduction of politics that keeps silos in place, and willingness to change to break bad habits. Most of those limitations are simply precedents or traditions that have developed over time. We know of an institution that discovered that they were barely using their campus before 10:00 a.m. because it had just become tradition, or practice, that faculty members didn’t want to teach at 8:00 in the morning.

Sam: It’s hard to stay open when you make decisions like that.

Rick: Well, we’ll have to circle back to this topic a little later, Sam. There’s more to say on it, but I’ve got to get back to my—

Sam: Vacation?

Rick: Vacation, sure. But I’m actually in my hotel room right now, doing a little research.

Sam: Ah. Okay. Well, I’m home with the kids, and it looks like I’m going to be changing three diapers here in a minute.

Rick: Have fun. Hug the babies.

Sam: Will do. Thank you. Have a good day.

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Sam Waterson

Sam is President at RHB.