LSU can lead the way in La.
Jeff Selingo, editorial director of The Chronicle of Higher Education and author of the forthcoming book The Future of Higher Education, was in Baton Rouge recently to speak to the LSU Board of Supervisors about the trends in higher education and inevitable changes coming. As a member of the board, I was privileged to hear Selingo's insights ... and warnings. He reminded me of Paul Revere.
Selingo also wrote a recent column in The New York Times, “Fixing College.” He discussed the tension and anxiety around the future of higher ed—“especially the question of whether university leaders are moving too slowly to position their schools for a rapidly changing world.” He said there is good reason to worry.
He claimed higher education nationally is paying the price for the mistakes it made in what he calls the industry's “lost decade,” from 1999 to 2009. He said, while higher ed grew and flourished, it failed to prepare for the change ahead—including less government funding and less resources for families—and did not embrace technology, which stood ready to help. Selingo said, “Instead, colleges continued to focus on their unsustainable model, assuming little would change.”
Selingo pointed out what he believes were some of the causes for disruption of legacy industries like higher ed, saying it reminded him of what he saw in 1999 in the newspaper industry. The causes were: 1) hubris, 2) skepticism of anything new, and 3) unwillingness to hear opposing viewpoints.
He also pointed to the record store and the bookstore as institutions we grew up with that have been disrupted by technology. (You can throw in the demise of iconic brands like Kodak and Encyclopedia Britannica as well, which perished because they didn't prepare for change. Kodak invented the digital camera in the 1970s but failed to embrace its potential.)
“Higher education is a conservative, risk-averse industry,” Selingo wrote. “Add to this the fact that a majority of its leaders are nearing the safety net of retirement, and we have a recipe for maintaining the status quo. We can't afford another lost decade.” He implies many are set in their ways—resistant to change as they approach the finish line in their careers. We need change agents.
Selingo says higher ed institutions must differentiate themselves and provide value for students and their parents. Many basic courses like English 101 and Math 101 are being commoditized and offered online for a fraction of the cost—and can even be taken in high school. It's not “your daddy's university” anymore.
Louisiana higher ed has an average six-year graduation rate of 38.8%. Some universities in this state are not providing value, and they are in big trouble. Meanwhile, the LSU flagship will report the highest graduation rate in the state this fall, somewhere in the mid-60s—higher than the national average.
Selingo also shared a chart for 2009-2010 comparing median tuition for 16 schools. The national median was $6,255 and the Southern Regional Education Board median is $5,670. LSU was the lowest of the schools on the tuition chart at $4,016. The chart also reported tuition as a percent of household income, and LSU was again the lowest at 8.8%. Now that is value that can compete nationally and provide a robust ROI. It should be recognized and proudly supported by all Louisianans.
Did you know that Louisiana is the only Southern state with a shrinking number of high school graduates? (Young people left in the 1980s, causing a decrease in the number of families today with school-age children.) That means fewer students for four-year colleges that have all added capacity—and they now have strong community colleges that charge less to compete with. Plus, there's the emergence of online education. And of course, there is less of the “state pie” to divide as well—and no one is looking to pay more taxes. Do you see the picture here? Someone is going to lose out, and it should be those who can't provide a quality product—same as in the private sector.
Selingo posed some questions to the LSU board (and these could apply to everyone in higher ed and even to your business): 1) What's your ambition? (the vision or goal); 2) Where to play? (your space or niche); 3) How to win? (strategy for success); 4) What actions will enable you? (tasks, building the team, legislation, technology, changes, etc.); and finally, maybe the hardest, 5) How to drive change? (communication, collaboration, courage, commitment).
I say the last is hardest because most folks just don't like change. They would rather just do it the way it has always been done. But change is inevitable in 2012 and beyond, and it will be continual. That goes for my industry (media), higher education, K-12, banking, technology, retail, hospitality and health care. No one is exempt. We all better just get used to it. Adapting can be very tough—and risky—for all us baby boomers, who make up a majority of those in charge, as we are experts in the way “things used to be done.”
We must ask our talented and dedicated LSU faculty and staff to examine and question the status quo, and get creative. While some will say, “We've done all that,” we must step back and do it again. (Sometimes it is hard to see the picture when you are in the picture.) With reduced government funding we must continue to pursue research grants, develop tech transfer, increase alumni and donor support, reduce and streamline overhead and administration, use technology to lower expenses and prepare for online offerings, consider privatization where applicable, reduce red-tape to increase productivity and eliminate costs, pursue public-private partnerships to generate capital from campus assets, and increase enrollment and study our tuition data. I am sure there are many other ideas out there from our folks and other universities.
The challenges we face are not going away and no one is going to fix the situation for us. We must act. And that will require leadership, open minds, bold ideas, best practices, objective data, political will and a decision to let go of the past and look forward. But we need not have our hands tied. LSU should be free to lead and make innovative changes to compete—then be held accountable for results.
I believe our flagship university and the LSU System, led by board Chairman Hank Danos, is positioned and ready to lead the way in our state—and set the pace for change we need to compete in the future. Joining with LSU's chancellors, faculty, students and alums, business community stakeholders, Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature, we can have a flagship system that can compete to win just like our No. 1-ranked LSU Tigers. We must ensure that our future is as great as our football.
Jeff Selingo came with a challenge and a warning. Let us heed the call and seize the opportunity to change.
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