Jun 13 • 7 min read

Higher education must change. But how can we?

Universities have been the cornerstones of society for centuries. With our long history come unique traditions and legacies, which bring a sense of self, a deeply instilled culture, a commitment to academic excellence and great pride in our communities.

Since we’ve done our jobs the same way for the last hundred and fifty years or more, it becomes hard—nearly impossible—to imagine or instill change.

But we must do so to remain relevant. Not only has the competition among universities and colleges gotten stiffer domestically, now we’re competing with corporate programs. Today, anyone can take a 12-week course at Google to learn how to code and get a $65,000 a year job. So, what does that mean for higher education?

Perhaps we should take a page from tech companies, which experience change more rapidly than most of us can imagine. They are full of data, collecting and analyzing everything, and using it to help make better decisions. They pivot. They adapt. They disrupt both themselves and the industries around them.

Unlike tech, higher education institutions are not typically good at internal disruption. We need an outside force to move us. We felt that acutely since the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced us to react quickly and pivot to deliver our lectures, services and courses online. We had to find innovative ways to engage our students, who are, after all, our most important customers.

As dean of Temple University’s Fox School of Business, I can’t lie and say I wasn’t nervous at the onset of the pandemic. That unexpected pivot was a lot to ask of our community—faculty, staff and students. But luckily, we felt prepared. We offered faculty and staff seminars and tips about online learning. We helped students feel comfortable online. We shared our suggestions across the university so that everyone, regardless of their previous experience with online teaching, had the tools to succeed.

Yet the pandemic only accelerated trends that had already been growing. This includes problems that we saw in the distance, which were catapulted into the front seat.

What’s more, increasingly across the U.S., but felt very poignantly where Temple is located in the Northeast, another trend is growing. Not as many people are going to college as they used to. Suddenly, there are more colleges and less demand.

This means we must embrace change now. Change management takes a lot of vision. We need to identify where trends are going and what our students need for the future. We need to, as the great Gretsky quote goes, skate to where the puck is going to be. We must balance our histories and legacies against the need for change.

We also have to be cognizant of what industry and our students need. For business schools especially, that means ensuring that our students are data literate. Companies are looking for employees who are proficient in Python or can understand what data can do for them. We need to change our educational models and adapt our curriculum so that these skills cut across disciplines and can be applied in every field.

We should understand that we cannot do this work alone. We should also embrace partnerships. There are opportunities for higher education to collaborate more deeply with the Googles and Amazons of the world. And if we don’t, we might miss the boat.

We’ve already started to see companies move forward with their own internal workforce development programs. AT&T, for example, started its own AT&T University for executive education and launched an online master’s program in computer science.

Marty Richter, corporate communications manager at AT&T, explained why the company made these investments in an interview with Monster.com: “We can’t depend on just hiring and the traditional educational system as sources for retooling or finding new talent. We need employees who are ready to work in a competitive and more digital world.”

This should raise a red flag for all leaders of academic institutions. We can’t let companies think that our education system is too inflexible to adapt to the needs of tomorrow’s workforce.

Amazon, for example, has seen the value of partnering with higher education. In January, they announced the expansion of their Career Choice program, which offers tuition for eligible full- and part-time employees at partner organizations. Previously, they had been offering partnerships on associate degree and certificate programs. Now, their employees can pursue bachelor’s degrees through partners like Virginia Commonwealth University and Colorado State University.

This kind of program proves the value of higher education. We have the talent, the skills, the curriculum and the experience to prepare future business leaders. We can pivot and embrace change. We can teach classes in virtual reality and create chatbot teaching assistants. We can find that empty space on the ice where the puck will be.

And yes, maybe (probably) Google will make a better chatbot professor that will know more about finance than me, a finance professor. But we know how to teach. We know how to connect with students. We are pedagogical experts and research leaders.

We offer our students a holistic experience, a place where they can learn about their chosen major, but also about themselves. The college experience may be changing, but that formative time for young people to find and define who they are is still needed.

As an industry, higher education can change. We can keep our histories, legacies and cultures, and continue to provide students with an opportunity to grow and learn. We can keep the best things we have to offer—our talent, skills, curriculum and experience—while adapting to the new realities of the future. With partnerships, we play to our strengths and expand upon them.

In a new model of education, having corporate partners would expand the opportunities for our students to engage in experiential learning. We can form agreements with companies to offer more internships, co-ops programs, in-class guest lecturers or case simulations.

We can create direct avenues into the real world for our students to try out and learn while letting companies access tomorrow’s greatest talents. We can feed each other information, teaching our students the skills that those companies will need their workforce to know. In working together, we’ll all be better off.

None of this matters, however, if the student can’t afford to go to college—which brings me to my last, and perhaps most important, point of change.

I fear that soon, the benefits of education and technology will only aid the upper socioeconomic class. Already, our middle- and lower-class kids do not have the same opportunities as wealthier kids, because they have to worry about housing and food insecurity on top of their five-figure student loans. Education used to be the great equalizer, but we can’t say that’s true for everyone anymore.

At the Fox School, we’re working to address these issues through programs like B4USoar, which offers students from Philadelphia’s public and charter high schools the opportunity to attend college classes, free of charge, and explore new paths for the future. We’re partnering with the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA) to create more avenues for Black business leaders of the future. We are working with corporations for new sponsorship opportunities.

And once here, the Center for Student Professional Development (CSPD) prepares all our students for the business world. So when a first-generation student, or a student unfamiliar with the professional workplace, comes to Fox, we can give them the tools and tricks they need to know, voicing the unsaid rules of engagement to even the playing field.

There are many barriers to overcome and many problems to solve. I’m grateful to the Fox community for working hard every day to address these issues—and make a world-class college education more accessible, meaningful and applicable for today’s students and tomorrow’s leaders.