Unleashing Innovation and Improvement

The Great Depression

The Great Depression, while primarily associated with economic hardship, also sparked a period of “creative destruction,” a concept credited to economist Joseph Schumpeter. This was a time when innovation and creativity led to the phasing out of old products and outdated methods, giving rise to more dynamic businesses and new and improved products. Many of these businesses and products that emerged during this period continue to be significant in today’s business landscape.

·      During the 1930s, the entertainment industry witnessed the emergence of movie giants like MGM, Paramount Pictures, and Warner Bros. These companies capitalized on the introduction of ‘talkies,’ a significant upgrade from the silent films of the previous era, replacing smaller film production companies of the 1920s.

·      In the consumer goods sector, Procter & Gamble gained prominence largely due to the success of its innovative radio soap operas, which they used to market their soap products. This innovative approach replaced traditional advertising methods.

·      In the automobile industry, companies like General Motors (GM) and Chrysler emerged as leaders by focusing on creating affordable vehicles for the mass market, replacing many smaller, luxury-focused car manufacturers that couldn’t adapt to the new economic realities.

·      The aviation industry saw the rise of the Boeing Company, which had been struggling in the 1920s, but found success during the Depression by focusing on designing and selling larger, more efficient airplanes.

·      The invention of xerography by Chester Carlson in 1938 was a pivotal moment in the history of document reproduction. This dry copying process, which became commercially available with the introduction of the Xerox 914 photocopier in 1959, fundamentally changed the way copies were made, transforming office work, education, and even politics.

The Higher Ed Depression

Similarly, higher education is indeed in a state of depression marked by declining enrollment, financial difficulties, and an increasing rate of college closures.

Enrollment in higher education institutions is plummeting. Projections suggest that by 2030, 449 colleges will experience a 25 percent decrease in student numbers. The situation is expected to worsen, with even more institutions affected by 2040. This decline in student numbers directly impacts the financial health of these institutions.

These financial challenges have led to an increase in college closures. Currently, on average, one college or university announces a closure or merger each week. In 2023 alone, 30 colleges shut their only or final campus. This trend isn’t limited to small institutions; major universities too are announcing significant budget cuts.

At best, the future of higher education looks uncertain. Many institutions are facing an “enrollment cliff” and financial crises. These challenges are likely to worsen with the end of federal COVID funds. Consequently, the higher education sector might see a widening gap between institutions that can adapt and those that cannot.

Another significant factor contributing to the decline in higher education enrollment is the perceived lack of value in a college education. Recent surveys and research indicate a shift in public perception regarding the value of a four-year college degree.

A significant portion of Americans, more than half, now question whether the investment in a college education is worthwhile, citing concerns about graduates lacking specific job skills and accumulating high levels of debt. This skepticism is particularly pronounced among the younger demographic, aged 18 to 34.

Moreover, financial concerns, the availability of well-paying jobs that do not require a degree, and the emergence of alternative educational pathways are contributing to a more nuanced view of the necessity and benefits of a four-year college education. As the landscape of higher education and the job market continues to evolve, it is likely that these trends will persist, prompting further examination of the role and value of a college degree in modern society.

This skepticism is not just confined to parents and students. Employers have also expressed concerns about the readiness of graduates for the workforce. Despite the fact that a majority of all adults say a college degree is as important as or more important than it was 20 years ago, there is a growing perception that many graduates are not workforce ready.

As such, significant improvements are necessary to ensure sustainability and relevance in the future. Institutions must consider new models of education in such areas as delivery, organization and operation.

Faster horses

Higher education has long been regarded as the cornerstone of intellectual growth and personal development. However, in today’s rapidly evolving world, there is a pressing need for improvement within our educational institutions. Despite the undeniable demand for improvement, higher education often finds itself trapped in a cycle of resistance and reluctance. As Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” This quote serves as a powerful reminder that in order to truly transform higher education, we must move beyond the familiar and embrace innovative solutions.

However, the simple truth is that higher education today is not built for improvement. It is entrenched in ancient structures, rather than adapting to the needs and realities of the 21st century. The system, which is built firmly on an 11th-century business model, 19th-century agrarian calendar, and a century old industrial mindset, is increasingly out of sync with the demands of our rapidly evolving world.

The key purpose of higher education is not to provide employment for faculty and staff, nor to elevate the careers of administrators. Rather, its primary mission is to equip students with the knowledge and skills necessary to meet societal economic needs. If an institution is not effectively fulfilling this function, bar having a significant endowment on which to fall back, then it is failing in its fundamental mandate.

Higher education must undergo a paradigm shift, transitioning from a process-driven structure to one that is results-oriented. The ultimate goal should not merely be to confer degrees, but to ensure graduates are well-learned, armed with marketable skills, and ready to contribute meaningfully to society.

The primary challenge to creativity and innovation on a college campus is clear: a resistance to improvement. In his book, “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It,” former college president and now Harvard University scholar, Dr. Brian Rosenberg concludes that, without question, the opposition to change and improvement by campus constituencies, is “profound” and a clear barrier to creativity and innovation.

There are other barriers: lack of resources; bureaucracy; risk aversion; outdated curriculum and assessment; lack of accountability for student success; and lack of reward for faculty achievement.

While the path to innovation in higher education is littered with obstacles, the need for improvement is undeniable. The focus must be firmly placed on producing well-rounded, knowledgeable graduates ready to meet the demands of the contemporary world, even if that means challenging age-old norms and practices.

More than just outdated academic traditions

This is not about change for change sake. It’s not about casting aside approaches that can be proven to advance student learning. Instead, it’s about identifying outdated structures, processes, procedures and attitudes that impede the improvements necessary to make higher education effective and efficient – that are more of a barrier whose justification can’t be proved or are long forgotten.

Moreover, the barriers to innovation in higher education extend beyond mere academic tradition, but are often deeply ingrained in our institutional and governmental structures including our accrediting bodies. These entities, often unwittingly, perpetuate outdated practices, creating an environment resistant to improvement.

Take, for instance, the federal financial aid system, which has long been tied to the agrarian calendar. Summer sessions have only recently gained recognition, despite the fact that these intensive programs can be a highly effective means of learning. This is a clear indication of how entrenched we are in old systems and how slow we are to adapt to new realities.

Moreover, state legislators, governing boards and accrediting organizations, who have the power to make significant improvements, are often the ones preserving these outdated structures. They need to recognize that their role should not be to maintain the status quo, but to pave the way for creativity, innovation, and progress.

Such authorities should begin to critically review existing laws, policies, and regulations with a fresh perspective. Only by doing so can they identify and dismantle any barriers to  improvement. The focus should be on fostering an educational environment that encourages creativity and innovation, rather than on preserving ancient structures that may no longer serve our needs.

For higher education to evolve and remain relevant in the 21st century, it requires not just internal reform, but also the support and cooperation of external bodies. These include government entities and institutional authorities who have the power to effect meaningful improvement. It is high time that all stakeholders reconsider their roles and responsibilities and that leadership emerge that will transform higher education into a system that truly meets the needs of today’s society.

Unleashing innovation and improvement – by Robin Capehart (substack.com)

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