U.S. colleges and universities are facing many new challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Courses have moved online, physical campuses are closed, and many incoming students are considering taking a gap year rather than return to school in the fall. Couple this with existing challenges: appropriations for higher education have fallen below levels prior to the Great Recession; modest salary increases for staff; roles for contingent faculty on campus must be defined; and, declining enrollments have occurred.
As an industry, higher education struggles with change. The basic structure and operations of most colleges and universities have remained the same for over 100 years. There are examples of institutions that have pursued new and creative ways of operating but, in general, they, too, are delivering the same type of education as other schools. For instance, students engaging in a four-year undergraduate plan follow the same steps in most universities, intermingling internships, co-ops and learning community experiences. This format allows for students to receive a well-rounded education beyond what is included in a core curriculum and academic major coursework. But this model isn’t without problems. On average, undergraduates take 52 months — or a little over four years — to earn their degree while for many first-time, full-time undergraduate students it can take up to six years. For graduate students, additional coursework can add another 1.5 to 2 years beyond a bachelor’s degree.
Why does this matter? First, we know that several years of postsecondary education causes younger generations to amass an insurmountable amount of debt and second, more employers are having to provide on-the-job training or apprenticeships for new graduates as there is a skills gap between what graduates are equipped to do and what employers demand. In this current moment of disruption, leaders need to examine the ways in which we provide an education and identify innovative approaches that will take us through the coming decades.
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In the pages of this publication, we have read about the persistent administrative bloat of institutions, smaller ones closing due to a failed business model and annual rising tuition. These problems will not be solved by the endless cycle of hiring freezes, increased teaching loads, outsourced services, or the rebranding of an institution. These challenges — which are more pronounced now — will only be addressed by true administrative changes. Change that requires creative leadership and the willingness by institutions, state offices of education and accrediting bodies to pursue a new model of higher education in the U.S.
But this would not be easy. To be sure, higher education is steeped in traditions and cultures that are slow to transform, but now is the time to do so. Certainly, there are a litany of professional organizations and higher education think tanks that have had these conversations — important conversations — about “disrupting” higher education and calling for change. We must all join these conversations and look for ways for American higher education to not only continue to operate but to be truly relevant in our society. How this should be done is for agency, state and institutional leaders to embrace a new approach to higher education.
There is no simple way to accomplish this. Kurt Lewin, a pioneer in human behavior, offered his timeless Change Model that leaders can adopt. His model refers to three stages: Unfreeze–Change–Refreeze. To better understand his approach, consider this: If you have a cup of ice, then realize that what you want is a block of ice, what do you do? You must first melt the ice to make it responsive to change (unfreeze) and then you must mold the iced water into the shape you want (change). Finally, you must strengthen the new shape of the ice (refreeze).
Although there has been criticism of this model as being too simplistic, I believe it offers higher education leaders a framework for action, while avoiding the vast uncertainty that paralyzes transformation efforts altogether.
For higher education to seize the opportunity during this challenging time, we must all “unfreeze” our preconceived notions about how colleges and universities must operate. Doing so will create the conditions and the environment to allow change to be explored and pursued. Accreditation agencies, state and institutional leaders need to examine the assumptions held about higher education and change the status quo. We are urged to question our habits and routines to determine if they are taking us in a direction that will sustain the industry.
Of course, an argument can be made that these questions are explored as institutions pursue strategic planning processes, however, those plans may stray off course. This is not a bad thing, especially if an institution is nimble and flexible, adapting to changes as they occur. However, we often remain stuck in unproductive behaviors when processes and activities continue unabated, without anyone questioning their legitimacy. Educators and administrators might have learned to do things one way, without considering other, more efficient or effective methods. Unfreezing means that leaders need to influence others in their institutions to gain perspective on their recurring activities, unlearn inefficient or outdated practices and open up to new ways of providing a higher education to our students. When we reimagine current practices and processes, we set in motion the wheels of change.
Higher education stands at a pivotal moment; change is imminent. The doors to opportunity will remain open regardless of when our physical campuses reopen. I am both optimistic and excited about what lies ahead. American higher education consists of some of the most brilliant and creative minds in the world. Researchers at universities are developing promising solutions to combat COVID-19 and faculty and staff are working together to provide continuity in students' education. We certainly have the capability to seize this moment and create a stronger foundation for higher education.
To be clear, I am not happy to see colleagues from around the country facing lay-offs or committing to labor contracts that call for no salary increases in the coming years. Academic programs may be dismantled, residence halls closed and alumni programs canceled, and this will hurt — financially and emotionally. I find no joy in this. However, this discomfort we are feeling should be redirected towards committing to new ways of doing business not only so that our institutions survive but thrive as our students receive an educational experience that is fitting for the 21st century.
Tricia S. Nolfi is Assistant Professor and program director for the MS Higher Education Assessment, Analytics and Change Management and MA Organizational Leadership programs at Rider University. She has worked in higher education for more than 30 years as an administrator and faculty member.
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