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Universities must adapt to meet student needs

By Patrick T. Harker Those of us who daily enjoy the grand settings of America's established universities may be forgiven for thinking they will last forever.

By Patrick T. Harker

Those of us who daily enjoy the grand settings of America's established universities may be forgiven for thinking they will last forever.

Many have lasted centuries, and for at least some of us, things have never been better. Ranks of eager applicants vie for admission - more than we can accept. At the University of Delaware, our incoming freshman class is the largest (4,200) in our 271-year history. Nearly all these students are backed by parents who remain ready, if not eager, to shoulder the ever-rising cost.

But there's a crisis coming, and you don't need an advanced business degree to see it. America's universities are pricing themselves out of the reach of the middle class.

Despite our efforts to hold down costs, state funding for higher education continues to erode, and bills keep getting higher. This year's 1.9 percent increase in tuition and mandatory fees at UD is our lowest in more than 30 years, but it has still bumped the price tag to $30,700 for out-of-state students and $12,300 for in-state. The average cost in the United States is now $27,900 for in-state and $40,000 for out-of-state. Many parents are being forced to choose between their own future and their children's.

Something has to give.

The market has already begun to sort this out. Smart students are going online to find innovative, less expensive degree paths. Take, for example, the start-up Minerva Schools, where I am on the advisory board. This program offers an online core curriculum focused on critical-thinking skills in the first year, and it presents its courses in a fast-paced, interactive format that is far more challenging than a traditional classroom. The brains behind Minerva and other such efforts are rethinking what a college education means and seeking to offer a superior education at a radically lower cost.

Right now, the for-profit sector is nibbling at the fringes of the vast college market, but this is how dynamic change happens. Look at the story of any big industry that has undergone tectonic change, from autos to TVs to computers. Innovators began by targeting fringe customers and gradually toppled the industry's giants.

A select few institutions like Harvard and Yale may have the resources to weather any storm, but the rest of us need to adapt, and quickly. I'm talking about radical change.

How? By rethinking both our mission and our methods.

In business terms, we need to improve our "value proposition," which at the university is our curriculum. We must better define what we offer and then figure out how to offer it more efficiently. At most universities, including UD, curriculum design is left to the faculty. Professors decide what to teach and when, depending on their interests and availability. Students choose from a buffet of courses and schedules designed to suit instructors. The system is teacher-centric.

We need to become learner-centric. What are the things that students need to learn most today? How can we deliver that learning in a way that suits the customer? When we teach workplace skills that are being effortlessly handled by computers, we're wasting time and money. We should be focusing on things that computers can't do well, at least not yet: things like thinking creatively, finding patterns in seemingly unrelated systems, and mastering complex forms of communication.

In each of our departments, we need to craft a smart common core. In the business world, a clearly defined "value proposition" is common sense, but in academia, it is not yet common practice. Columbia University has for decades delivered a high-quality liberal arts education using a common core. Leading business schools like Harvard and Wharton long ago adopted it. But the approach at most universities, including UD, is informal at best, caught up in the wheeling and dealing of faculty tenure and preferences.

There are basic courses that all incoming students in the sciences or the humanities need to take. Why not identify them and then, using technological tools and a variety of faculty models - a mix of tenured and nontenured instructors - find ways to offer them efficiently? This would not only achieve economy of scale, but it would also enable us to make better use of our costliest resource, faculty time. A well-designed core would free professors in most departments to do the kind of work they most prefer, teaching advanced seminars and mentoring students one on one.

Technology is not the answer to our problems, but it should be part of it. Innovative educators go a lot further today than posting classroom lectures online; they employ multiple platforms and interactive tools that in some ways engage and challenge students more completely than even the best-run classroom. Because they can be accessed from anywhere, and in some cases at any time, they can accommodate many more students than a standard classroom session, and at lower cost.

Lots of interesting experiments are underway at UD and elsewhere, with problem-based learning, computer-based pedagogy, and restructured semester schedules, but it isn't enough. Our campuses need the equivalent of Lockheed Martin's "Skunk Works," an autonomous, bureaucracy-free lab of innovation. While academics are devoted to this principle in their own disciplines, they are less inclined to apply it to the university as a whole. We are past the need for incremental change; we need significant leaps.

If we don't change rapidly and dramatically, those clever start-ups like Minerva will make short work of our beloved traditions, and the university as we know it might well become extinct.