American higher education serves a wide range of learners at many stages of their lives and careers. Everyone from the traditional 18 year-old, first-time-in-college student at a residential college or university to the 34 year-old mother returning to complete the degree she started before kids to the 54 year-old manager retooling after being laid off. And all permutations and every variation in between: part-time to full-time, learning in formal institutions to “free-range learning, and face-to-face to blended to virtual.
Given this complexity of needs and means, each learner has a different and distinctive value proposition. Value has particular and personal meanings. Perceived value is shaped by the perspectives and needs of the learner, not the provider.
Many traditionally-aged college students are seeking educational experiences that develop them as individuals and prepare them to live a meaningful life and make a comfortable living. For such students, the values and value of their educational institution are important factors in their selection. Many value-centric institutions depend on this as a differentiator in appealing to such students. Developmental experiences are important to such learners.
For the 85% of students in higher education that are older and non-traditional, however, the value they are deriving from their learning experience is pre-eminent. Perceptions of value consist of rich and personalized combinations of three factors: 1) the outcomes desired by the learner and the outcomes they actually achieve, 2) the desirability and convenience of experiences through which the outcomes are achieved, and 3) the price of the entire process.
The Great Recession, the affordability crisis, publicity about crushing student debt burdens, and the declining state of family wealth have made learners and parents much less certain about the future. The capacity and willingness of individuals and families to invest in learning have taken a shock. Learners are becoming more rigorous in questioning the “value” they derive from their learning. Families are rethinking their value propositions. They are becoming more aggressive about askingt he question “Are we getting our money’s worth?” Assumptions about outcomes, quality, and value are being reframed.
Continuing the Economic Slide
This situation will only get worse over the next few years. Institutional finances will be weak and tuition at many institutions will continue to increase at 5-10% per year to close budget gaps. On the employment side, many graduates will continue to be underemployed and unemployed. Many graduates are being driven to seek new, entrepreneurial and “free agent” opportunities. This will erode confidence in the return on investment on higher education from traditional providers.
Anya Kamenetz’s book, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education described two facets of this problem. First, that he Millenial Generation are the “canaries in the coal mine” demonstrating that college education by the old model s unaffordable. Metaphorically, the Millennial canaries have expired.. Second, the Millennial generation is much more open to new ways of achieving learning – the “Do-It-Yourself-University (DIY U) approach – and are confronted with a wide range of new, open learning options and new competitors that will challenge the hegemony of traditional, institution-based higher education and possibly establish new price points for learning.
Between now and 2013, the economy’s recovery will likely be weak. whether there is a “double dip” recession, an “L-shaped”, Japanese style recovery and lost decade, or some other visual descriptions of a bad situation, the prospects are not rosy. In turn, this means that the financial condition of the states will continue to worsen. Figures from the State Higher education Executive Officers (SHEEO) suggest that state budget health will reach its nadir in 2012-2013. The “New Normal” is that we will not bounce back like after past recessions. While most institutional leaders understand these conditions, many of the rank-and-file faculty and staff expect a normal bounce-back and conditions returning to the old normal.
Smart institutional leadership will use the period between 2010-2013 to articulate the challenge of the New Normal and to recraft strategies and reimagine their institutions, post recession, building capacity and reinventing policies, processes, and practices.
This will continue from 2013 through 2020, by which time reimagined and strategically realigned institutions may have achieved a new plane of financial sustainability.
Achieving financial sustainability will only be possible, however, if institutions are mindful of what “value” means to the learners of 2013-2020 and act accordingly.
Focusing on Value from 2013-2020
So in this environment of an emerging “New Normal,” what will value means to students who will be engaged in higher learning from 2013-2020? From the viewpoint of anxious and perceptive learners and their families, we suggest the following elements of a learner-centric set of value propositions:
• Provide me with flexibility of learning and developmental experiences, so I can complete my learning objectives conveniently and on time.
• Do not require me to repeat learning for competences I can already demonstrate.
• Reduce my total cost of education and my debt burden.
• Prepare me for the global workforce so I will be employable and competitive for jobs from the start.
• Provide me with the habits of mind, body, and spirit to be able to continuously learn and develop throughout my careers.
• Provide a network and community of lifelong support to know what I will need to know to continue to be competitive.
• Provide continuing learning and development options that are fast, fluid, flexible, and affordable.
This should be a manifesto for learners and for institutions keen on serving their needs.