ivory tower

Colleges must find ways to compete with their digital counterparts.

Wikipedia defines education as the process by which society deliberately transmits its accumulated knowledge, skills, and values from one generation to the next. Much like modern day monks transcribing the scrolls of our generation onto fresh sheets of papyrus, colleges have staked out their territory as the conveyors of wisdom and culture from generation to generation.


However, the laborious transcription work done by monks, was pushed aside in favor of a higher calling. As printing presses came onto the scene in the 1500s, the intensive human-based efforts were soon far too inefficient to compete. Similarly, colleges are about to find that their digital counterparts in the education realm are about to render their human-based teaching operations far too inefficient to compete.

Rest assured, the need to convey information from one generation to the next will still exist, but the professors, like the monks of the past, will be given a higher calling. For colleges to survive and thrive, the coming years will find them searching for higher ground. Their struggle will be to transition themselves beyond regional objectives, political boundaries and short-term thinking.

Instead, college will focus their considerable talent base on the challenges that lie ahead, capturing the salient points of understanding with each step of the journey. Much like an astronaut setting foot on a new planet, future colleges will be seen as the ever-vigilant explorers of the unexplainable, guiding us into worlds unrecognizable, creating doorways into a future that is unknowable.

Similar to the way the news media serves to assure a clear separation of powers in all areas of governance, one of the key roles for future colleges will be to save us from our primitive selves. They will become the champion of forward progress, the defender of what’s possible.

Just as the forces of tradition favor the status quo, the forces of next generation learning and understanding will favor the non-status quo. In short, colleges will become our checks and balance for the status quo.

Fundamental Drivers

So why are all of these changes starting to happen, and what are the fundamental drivers underlying these shifts? At the heart of these changes is a maturing base of Internet technologies connecting people and rewriting the rules for communication. This has resulted in a shifting base of cultural standards, speed of operations, and overall expectations.

As with many industries, universities have established themselves as the intermediaries, the gatekeepers between information and our minds. With information now abundant and free, the gatekeeper business model is quickly becoming unworkable.

Here are a few of the cultural forces behind the changes that lie ahead:

1.) Pricing themselves out of existence: Students and their families are finding it increasingly difficult to afford college, forcing them to be more pragmatic in their decisions:

• Nationally, tuition and fees have risen 439% since 1982 in inflation-adjusted dollars, while median family income has risen only 147 percent. (National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education)
• 69 percent of private colleges reported that loan availability for their students and parents has been negatively affected by the economic downturn. (National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities)
• In October 2008, nearly 60 percent of surveyed high school seniors were considering a less prestigious college for affordability reasons; 14 percent changed their focus to a two-year college; 16 percent put their college searches on hold. (MeritAid.com)

2.) Customer perceived value: Outcomes are defining the perceived value of college education.

• The number of college graduates who were out of work hit a record high of 1,413,000 in November 2008, as business and professional services jobs and financial services jobs experienced record staff reductions. (Bureau of Labor Statistics)
• For years now, women have been earning more college degrees than men. That trend is accelerating. The biggest difference isn’t so much who starts college, but who finishes. Men drop out at much higher rates. (Chicago Tribune)
• An August 2009 study released by SRI International for the U.S. Dept of Education concluded that “On average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” (NY Times)

3.) Cultural shifts: The perceived value is a core component of a college’s reputation, and that reputation is being continually re-defined in online communities.

• 81 percent of Americans age 18 and over use the Internet. (Harris Poll)
• On average, 245 million word-of-mouth conversations occur in the U.S. daily via e-mail, IM/text messaging or chat rooms/blogs, and 35 percent of advice givers in online conversations fall within the 13 to 17 age bracket. (Keller Fay Group)
• 64 percent of college student Internet users consider word of mouth the most useful type of advertising. (Alloy Media + Marketing)
• Many of the top attributes that teenagers value in a brand – community, collaboration, co-creation, empathy, real story and meaning – relate to authenticity. (Ypulse)

4.) Disruptive technology: Online education is set to overtake traditional education.

• Today a full 80 percent of colleges employ some form of online education, and the number of students who choose online education is growing rapidly. From 500,000 online students in 2002 to 3.9 million in the fall of 2007. (eMarketer)

By Thomas Frey


Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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