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How Long Can Our Current College System Last?

I just dropped my son off at college, as a transfer student, in California. He studied for two years at a local community college and is now off to finish his degree. What’s interesting is, he’s heading out just as many college boards are contemplating their futures. Some educational experts predict loads of universities won’t be around in twenty years. Many four-year institutions will not make it beyond the next four years. Have you looked at the numbers?

photo credit: Christopher Chan via photopin cc

photo credit: Christopher Chan via photopin cc

The business model for many universities (at least the ones that aren’t endowed) is antiquated. Now that millions of parents and potential students are questioning the value of tuition costs, some schools can’t convince a 21st century “hacker” of education to attend. In fact, as I look at many colleges today, I see the newspaper industry ten years ago. Newspapers were once deemed indestructible. Then the Internet came along and took away their classified business. But the problem was bigger than the fact that their classifieds disappeared. They had accumulated huge debt and had overinvested in physical assets that could not adapt to the new, digital marketplace.When revenue fell, the debt was still there — as were all the buildings they’d purchased, presses they’d bought, and acquisitions they’d made. Everything had declined in value, but the debt accumulated to pay for it all never diminished. Sadly for them, people had found a more convenient (even free) way to get the news.

Dallas Mavericks owner, Mark Cuban commented, “For the smart student who cares about getting their money’s worth from college, the days of one school for four years are over. The days of taking on big debt (to the tune of ONE TRILLION DOLLARS as of today) are gone. Going to a four year school is supposed to be the foundation from which you create a future, not the transaction that crushes everything you had hoped to do because you have more debt than you could possibly pay off in 10 years. It makes no sense. Which in turn means that four-year schools that refuse to LOWER their tuition are going to see their enrollment numbers decline. It just doesn’t make sense to pay top dollar for Introduction to Accounting, Psychology 101, etc.”

How Should Colleges Respond to Current Students?

If I am right about this, colleges must make a big paradigm shift. First, arrogance must be thrown out the window. Arrogance put thousands of antiquated businesses and CEOs out of business. Schools must find a new way to reach their goal of educating a new population of students in critical thinking, career skills, philosophy of life and liberal arts. Let me suggest some initial steps:

  1. Interview or survey thousands of students. I am serious. Get a big cross-section of adolescents and twenty-somethings to tell you what they’re after. I realize you have answers to questions they don’t even know to ask, but start with where they are.
  1. Rethink the “how” as well as the “what.” Not only do I believe that courses need to be evaluated in colleges, I believe the way they are delivered needs to be changed. And I’m not just speaking about out-dated pedagogy — I’m talking about new systems of digital delivery.
  1. Get extremely practical. Employers are begging for schools to equip graduates in emotional intelligence, soft skills, social intelligence, etiquette, and even how to conduct oneself in the professional world. I realize a liberal arts degree has not been traditionally about practical skills, but we must rethink this.
  1. Differentiate yourself. Because competition for career preparation is stiff, figure out a way to approach students in a meaningful way that others aren’t — establishing coaching or mentoring relationships, life planning, life skills, etc.
  1. Help students prepare a college value plan. What classes should they take online to enable them to get the most credits for the least cost? What classes are you going to take at a local, low-cost school so you can get additional credits at the lowest cost?

The smart high school grad no longer just picks a school, borrows money and wings it.Are you ready for them? What else do you believe colleges must do to stay relevant?

Help students successfully transition from high school to college and college to career with:

Habitudes® for the Journey: The Art of Navigating Transitions



  1. Jennifer Bondurant on August 27, 2014 at 8:25 am

    Yes, colleges need to adapt to the changing needs of today’s students. But myths exist about the student debt. College is still a good value – and greatly increases your potential career earnings. On average, the debt level for undergrads is less than the price of a modest vehicle. See this link for more info and figures:

  2. Mary Ann on August 27, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    I think the “outdated pedogogy” of the original (Classical)Liberal Arts needs to be revived. College isn’t tech school and should be broader and deeper than a narrow “major”. We need students with character and conviction who understand Logic, Rhetoric and what it means to be human, curious people who are eager to learn and grow. That kind of person is prepared for any job because they are prepared to live, not just make a living.

  3. Dave Miller on August 27, 2014 at 4:13 pm

    You are spot on. This has to change. We don’t just need better versions of a bad idea. We need systemic changes and different approaches. Keep talking. We are reading!

  4. Brian Musser on August 29, 2014 at 1:58 pm

    As I have watched Drexel University over the last decade several of these things have become blatantly obvious but some universities are responding to the situation. Universities have multiple funding streams endowments, research, alumni, tuition and corporate sponsors.
    Drexel has made a big push for online programs and corporate partnerships. This changes the education process. The more corporate a university becomes the less it is about developing an individual and more about training an employee. The more online learning takes place the more it is about information and the less about interaction.
    Also in Philadelphia we have seen an incredible boom in university enrollment and construction at our major schools. But this construction is very interesting. It is always mixed use including housing run by a non-university provider, retail options especially in regards to food. And very little of it the construction is funded by the university itself. University’s have a large captive population of the most desirable market and are using access to that population as a way to generate revenue.
    What concerns me is that education has taken a back seat to funding the institution.

  5. Rudolf F. Borsics on August 30, 2014 at 7:54 am

    Need to look into the number of “tenured” professors and their salaries. I see a lot of them with extraordinarily too much time on their hands talking about income equality and socialism etc. on MSNBC etc, while they take 200 thousand a year for doing practically nothing. Students have to pay for that.

  6. Ken Shepherd on August 30, 2014 at 9:29 pm

    Tim, you are spot on when you say that the kids need more skills and just not the education. In The Atlantic, (1/19/2013) there was an article titled, “53% of Recent College Grads Are Jobless or Underemployed-How?” Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs also has a campaign to get more young people involved in technical skill jobs that companies are dying for. Caterpillar was offering jobs starting at $45,000 with opportunities to advance and they have a hard time filling those jobs. I was on a panel at a junior high earlier this year and the representative from Cat verified this, he said hat if they could just find people to show up for work, be on time, and be willing to work, that would be great! Keep up the great work!!

  7. Joel Boehner on October 13, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    “Arrogance”… Not a very generous way of trying to start a constructive conversation…

  8. Farmer Bob on November 15, 2014 at 10:52 pm

    “I realize a liberal arts degree has not been traditionally about practical skills, but we must rethink this.”


    A statement like that indicates you have no idea what the liberal arts are all about, or you have a very reductionistic and crudely short-sighted definition of the word “practical.” Literacy, logic, rhetoric, critical thinking, creative problem solving, empathetic imagination, “soft skills”?? Community colleges, for profit moocs, online college “hackers” have nowhere near the track record that our country’s (especially faith based) liberal arts colleges have in fostering such practical outcomes. For someone who was once so dedicated to “selling” the importance of life on life mentoring, you sure have drunk the koolaid of the online utilitarian education folks. I guess you have something else you’re selling now?? (Like a book littered with unhelpful generational stereotypes and a pseudo curriculum to ease the corrupt consciences of big time college athletic departments??)

    This post, as is typical when you have written on higher ed, is littered with half truths, cartoonishly alarmist, and utterly lacking in nuance or real awareness of what actually happens at good liberal arts colleges.

    Stick to your real talent–sermons with five alliterated points, a tear jerking anecdote, and an altar call.

    • Tim Elmore on November 20, 2014 at 1:25 pm

      Thanks for your comments, albeit laced with bitterness. Let me clarify that I do believe schools began with right intentions—to prepare students for the norms of society. That’s precisely why Horace Mann began the public school system—which he called the normal school. In higher ed, I agree we do need to wrestle with critical thinking, logic, literacy, etc. I just believe I am seeing something you are not seeing, as I travel and work with thousands of schools, many of which are universities. We are not preparing students well for the norms of society. Perhaps we should agree to disagree. We are seeing two different realities. You are right about the track record—liberal arts colleges have a past and MOOCS do not. They are new and we will see what will come of them. Time will tell who is right. I do not think MOOCS are the best answer—they are growing simply because schools are not accomplishing what society needs. (I have taught courses in nine universities. I’m not speaking in a vacuum). I continue to mentor (life on life) and will always encourage adults to practice this kind of relationship with students. This blog was intended to start a conversation. Thanks for making your point—although it would have been great had you remained professional and left the bitter sarcasm out.

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How Long Can Our Current College System Last?