Managing Disruptive Change In Higher Education

As a seasoned higher education administrator, I am active in several professional organizations, and I regularly read the higher education literature to stay abreast of current issues facing us. As with many other fields, higher education has experienced what we call “disruptive change” in the past decade.

Higher Education has come under a higher level of scrutiny due to the economic downturn. With limited funds at the national and state levels, citizens are questioning their investment in public education. Is a college degree still worth the investment of tuition and fees paid by students or parents? Should we continue to allocate precious state and federal funding to higher education? Are those of us in higher education being good stewards of the financial resources entrusted to us? Although K-12 education has experienced this higher level of accountability for some time now, the public examination of use of resources and performance outcomes is relatively new to those of us in higher education.

The majority of today’s college students are not what we think of as traditional students. They are looking for something very different from what most of us experienced when we attended college a few decades ago. It’s the “YouTube Generation” vs. the “Sesame Street Generation.” Our students are more savvy consumers, and they expect education to meet their needs rather than merely conforming to the structure and course offerings available.

Competition among colleges and universities has rapidly increased, and students have many more options available than they did a decade ago. In short, the field of higher education has been challenged to reinvent itself. We are creating and offering online, evening and weekend classes. We are “flipping the classroom” to eliminate the traditional lecture format.  We are offering innovative degree programs. In short, business as usual has been “disrupted” in higher education.

The new chair of the Board of Regents, Neil Pruitt, recently challenged all the University System of Georgia presidents to explore our academic and extracurricular programming to ensure that our students graduate with both the technical knowledge and “soft skills” of an effective employee.  Are we preparing students to become global citizens in an increasingly technology oriented world that still needs employees with skills such as the ability to communicate and work effectively in teams to solve new problems creatively?

Last fall, the USG launched a task force to discuss and prepare for what we are calling the “New Learning Models of 2030.” The purpose is to examine and explore possible disruptive changes in the world around us in order to understand how higher education would be impacted in various scenarios and how we could best respond. I am fortunate to serve on this task force. We chose four potential scenarios and have been exploring the possibilities of each of these situations.  We discuss what it would be like to be a student, faculty member, or administrator in higher education for each of the scenarios, and we also explore the factors that would make a college or university more successful given the circumstances of each of these possible futures.  Of course none of these scenarios may play out, but the point is to go through the exercise of considering how we as institutions of higher education must adapt to potential changes in the world around us. 

Even as interim president, I ask myself every day whether we are serving the needs of our community as well as we can. Are we offering higher education in a format that is accessible to today’s students who are increasingly more likely to be older, working at least part-time, parenting and/or caring for aging parents?  Are we providing students with an education that will ensure that they can be productive citizens? Are we being as efficient as possible to ensure that we remain as affordable as possible? While I am proud of Dalton State College and its current degree programs, facilities and extracurricular programming, I know we must continue to respond to the needs of an environment that is changing quickly.

Going forward, Dalton State College will be conducting some visioning and branding conversations. We will explore who we are and how we currently define and describe ourselves in addition to envisaging what we want the future to be at the College.  I hope to hear from a number of representatives of our constituent groups. Don’t hesitate to reach out to me or someone else at the College if you have some thoughts to share.