By Dr. Peter Smith

In an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education published October 21stJeff Selingo raises the urgent and important question, “Where Will Innovation Begin?” And, in his conclusion, he asks for feedback and examples. In my next three blogs, I will discuss, with examples, the obstacles faced by existing institutions when they try to innovate, where innovation has already begun and where innovation will come from in the future.

Credit to Selingo for raising the question and offering a good example in the very interesting new institution Harrisburg State Technical University in Harrisburg, Pa. And further credit for suggesting four areas, including price and tenure,where innovation is needed. Although it is too soon to know for sure, I agree with his argument that the top 100 institutions don’t have much to worry about (although it may be a few more than that), the lowest 100 will go out of business or get bought (actually I think it will be more than that), and that all those in between that must change or die.
Beyond that, however, I think his analysis lacks context, failing to include the reasons why higher education needs to produce dramatically better attainment; while his field of vision is too narrow, focusing as it does on existing institutions and the innovations that they can make.  All the analysis that I have seen, most recently a presentation by Jim Appleberry of the Lumina Foundation at the President’s Forum meeting on October 13th, suggests that even with vastly improved performance, the traditional higher education system cannot, alone, meet the goals of the Obama administration. The long term consequences of this failure include both a weakened economy and an increasing earnings gap. So, there is a social and economic imperative here that must be put at the heart of any discussion regarding innovation in higher education. This means that we need our existing institutions  to innovate and improve, but we also need entirely new models, both proprietary and non-profit to meet the goals for employment and prosperity that we have set.
In his theory of “disruptive innovation”, Clayton Christiansen describes the economic nature of resistance to change. In higher education terms, it might sound like this. “Why should I admit students who are not my historic  alumni body, charge them less and move them through faster, while offering them pathways that are not like the pathways I currently have established?” Put another way, why would someone jeopardize their existing largely successful model for an expensive unknown that might lose them money while alienating their faculty and alumni. Good question.  Then add unions, tenure, research, and a commitment to the semester/quarter system and you have a morass that is virtually impenetrable.
Change in this type of environment will not come through exhortation. Indeed, it will only come through firm and continuing leveraging by traditional bystanders to the higher education process, like employers, parents, and students of all ages.  Otherwise, the “iron triangle” of higher education finance will continue to operate, driving tuition’s up as other sources of revenue stagnate or decline.
What makes this moment in time so compelling is that, just as we see the need for a vastly better educated citizenry, the tools to do just that have been revolutionized by the web. For the first time, the tools to drive change and improve learning lie beyond the scope and the control of the academy, in the community which surrounds it. So, for the first time in our history, colleges and universities do not control either the conversation or the drive to innovate. As a consequence, also for the first time, if they stand still, they will be left behind, bobbing in the wake of rapid change.
So, Selingo is correct, both in his question and his initial answers. But there is much more both in the problem and the solutions than his article implies.   Next week I will write about several institutions, many of which have been around for 30 years or more which illustrate, by their very example, that change is possible within the non-profit as well as the for-profit sector. I will also describe some of the obstacles they continue to face as they try to serve 21st century learners. And in my third blog, I will describe totally new, wildly innovative institutions and efforts that presage an entirely different future for our understanding of where higher education comes from, how it will operate, and what it might look like. Please stay tuned.