The coming crises in higher education
Why a focus on value and enriched student experiences is essential
Daily news reports and websites are full of data and speculation about the future of higher education, and most of it appears ominous. This past summer, an analysis of 1,700 colleges and universities by Bain and Company found that one-third of the schools are on “an unsustainable financial path,” meaning they are overly leveraged, suffering enrollment declines and resorting to deep tuition discounts to attract students. The price of college is reaching $60,000 a year at some private institutions, stretching the limits of even upper-middleclass families with two or more children.
The highly touted launch of MOOCS (massive open online courses), available at low or no cost by leading universities, has caused some to predict that many traditional brickand- mortar campuses will soon become a thing of the past. New federal support for higher education is not likely because of the enormity of the national debt, with entitlement spending threatening to swamp every other sector of the budget. Indeed, the seas ahead look choppy. These realities will affect many colleges and universities adversely.
Why am I optimistic for Elon despite such challenges? We are holding fast to two overriding principles as we prepare for the future. The first is to continue to focus on highly personalized, enriched educational experiences that place a premium on human relationships. In what some might consider a countertrend move, we are investing more than $100 million in new residence and dining facilities to create premier living/ learning environments.
Our strategic plan, the Elon Commitment, calls on us to find a way to provide a global education experience for every Elon student. A hallmark of the Elon experience is mentoring by outstanding faculty, including teaching about the process of discovery through undergraduate research. As one undergraduate put it to me recently, “half of what I have learned in college has been through living in a community with people who are different from me.” And today more than ever, leading universities have a responsibility to help students build a bridge to a meaningful life after college, especially in fostering networks that lead to competitive internships and quality employment.
This is not to say we are ignoring the world of online education. Elon has been offering classes online since 2001 and will offer more than 50 high-quality online classes this summer; both the MBA and M.Ed. graduate programs incorporate online experiences as a part of the curriculum. Indeed, I believe such innovative, flexible and customized learning pedagogies prepare students to be lifelong learners and allow them to stay connected to campus wherever they are in the world. We are also seeing blended approaches to teaching and learning, combining the best of vast online content with in-person collaborative work and discussion with faculty in the classroom setting. This is the essence of an Elon education – residentially based, highly dependent on close mentoring of students by faculty and staff, technologically rich and filled with life-transforming experiences, both domestically and abroad. This explains why there are seven applications for every seat in the first-year class.
The second overriding principle for us to pay attention to if we are to remain a viable institution in the 21st century is that of cost. Elon is a tremendous value, and must remain so. Elon offers a high-quality liberal arts and sciences experience for every student, signified by a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, a top-50 business school, a top-tier school of communications, and innovative and accredited schools of education, law and health sciences. Only seven private institutions in the nation can boast such credentials. We deliver that level of quality for less than $40,000 a year, $10,000-15,000 less than our peer universities. This partially explains why Elon draws applications from nearly every state and more than 50 nations today.
Maintaining that level of value will require creativity and resourcefulness as we move forward. We are committed to the most moderate tuition increases possible while still being able to properly reward our most important resource for students – faculty and staff. We plan to maintain affordability and double need-based financial aid in this decade through the generous philanthropy of alumni, parents and friends who provide annual gifts and grow Elon’s endowment.
We know who we are. Our mission is clear. We are innovative and nimble. We have great values. We are a value. I believe our future is very bright.
Leo M. Lambert