An author and lecturer on the future of America’s colleges warned the LSU Board of Supervisors they need to adapt to changes in higher education before universities go the way of the newspaper.
One of his central arguments was that colleges in the future may not be able to sell students on the age-old argument that students who enroll in traditional schools generally earn more money after they graduate.
Jeff Selingo, the editorial director of The Chronicle of Higher Education, a Washington, D.C.-based weekly newspaper and website, said newspaper executives made three big mistakes in the 1990s that have since cost the industry a significant slice of the news market.
Newspaper executives were guilty of hubris, skeptical of anything new and unwilling to hear opposing viewpoints on the future of the business, he said during his presentation to the board on Friday.
Decisionmakers underestimated the convenience and portability of the internet and its ability to deliver news, Selingo said.
Colleges are facing a similar situation as government funding support to higher education has dropped, tuition is on the rise and people start to question the value of the traditional university setting, he said.
Selingo called the period between 1999 and 2009 “A Decade of More” for higher education. Student enrollment increased by one-third, degrees awarded rose by 21 percent and colleges took on $277 billion worth of debt, he said.
“Before, people were willing to go to any college at any price. Then the recession hit,” Selingo said.
In 2003, only two colleges cost $40,000 per year. More than 200 schools charged that much by 2009 with 58 of them charging $50,000 per year or more, Selingo said.
“The discussions among students and parents going forward will be about the value of college. The question is going to be ‘what am I paying for,’ ” Selingo said.
And colleges shouldn’t count on a “boom time” when the recession ends as has been the case after other economic downturns. “There is a new normal in higher education because of technology,” Selingo said.
A 2011 Sloan Foundation survey found that the number of college students taking one or more online courses has exceeded 6 million and nearly one-third of all higher education students are taking at least one online course.
Some of the country’s most prestigious schools are leading the way.
Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have collaborated on Edx, a free nonprofit learning venture, while two Stanford computer scientists have created and found funding for Coursera, a for-profit company offering hundreds of online courses.
Edx and Coursera are examples of the platform known as massive open online courses, known as MOOCs.
Coursera has established partnerships with more than a dozen schools including Princeton University, the University of Michigan, Duke University and Johns Hopkins University.
In a July 11 blog post on the Chronicle’s website, Selingo wrote that he could see universities replacing high-cost remedial courses with MOOCs to replace or supplement those noncredit courses.
At LSU on Friday, Selingo counseled the board to consider the reasons why students go to college and why parents are willing to pay for it.
Factors working in favor of traditional universities are the maturation process students go through in college, plus the campus experiences and student-professor relationships, which can’t easily be replaced by MOOCs, Selingo said.
Factors working against traditional universities include students taking basic courses online for free, credentials granted by MOOCs could soon become just as acceptable as formal degrees and the opportunity for networking — which is a major selling point for colleges — can be done online, Selingo said.
As colleges revert to what he described as the typical playbook when faced with budget cuts — across the board cuts, hiring freezes, cutting programs and reducing student services — other learning platforms can take their place, he said.
During his morning lecture, Selingo didn’t offer many concrete examples colleges could use to stay competitive, but he did offer some advice.
In order to thrive, or just survive, colleges need to convince faculty and staff to buy into change, which is unavoidable and “build the tools, capabilities and behaviors required to drive change on an ongoing basis,” Selingo said.
Interim LSU System President William Jenkins agreed with that concept.
“There is not a single doubt in my mind that this is the way we’re going in the coming years. For the millennial generation, this is going to be the culture,” Jenkins said.
Before ending his remarks, Selingo advised the LSU board on their search to replace John Lombardi, who was fired as president in April.
An LSU presidential search committee chose Dallas-based R. William Funk & Associates to lead the effort to find Lombardi’s replacement shortly before Selingo’s lecture.
“You need somebody committed to change and somebody who has a number of big ideas, not just one,” Selingo told the board.
“And you need people on campus to implement what you want to do.”