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Radical changes are coming to higher education, explains IIRP President John W. Bailie, Ph.D., as he reflects on his experience at the New York Times Higher Ed Leaders Forum. He says that smaller, nimble institutions - like the IIRP Graduate School - will be best positioned to provide 21st century students the kinds of useful skills and experiences they will want and need.

I recently had the pleasure of representing the IIRP at this years’ New York Times Higher Ed Leaders Forum, May 31-June 1, 2017.

Racial equity, free speech and the arrival of Generation Z were all important and passionately discussed topics. However, there is sub-current of change brewing in higher education that is somewhat less obvious than these headline-grabbing themes.

These changes might just transform our entire concept of college, university and adult learning.

In short, there is a growing perception that…

Tuition is too expensive and the return is too little. The pre-packaged major/curriculum experience does not reliably or efficiently develop the competencies that students and employers value most. Professor-centric classroom learning cannot compete with tech-savvy, adaptive and blended learning as the next generation of students expect a more engaging, flexible and student-centered learning model.

For an in-depth breakdown of the history and implications of each these points, I highly recommend the book College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education. The author, Ryan Craig, participated in an inspiring panel on innovation at the Times forum.

The plain truth is that most higher education institutions will likely be too slow to adapt and get ahead of the changes needed to effectively respond to these forces without first undergoing significant hardship in the coming years.

The truly elite institutions of the world have the financial and social resources to weather and adapt to nearly any storm of change and will likely be with us until the end of days. For the rest… the storm is coming and is already being felt by many.

Ryan Craig is on target with his assertion that the future of innovation in higher education will be dominated by a much wider range of smaller, nimble, tech-savvy niche providers using competency-focused learning that is highly responsive to student and employer needs.

There will be an expanding market for certificate and skills-specific programs that teach quantifiable hard and soft skills that employers value - versus long and broad degrees.

Smaller and more specialized higher education providers will be much better placed to respond to the rapidly changing education and employment landscape.

For example, as a graduate institution designed for the 21st century, the IIRP’s courses are largely blended and asynchronous/online. Our courses are accessible from anywhere in the world, and our students largely remain engaged in their current job roles while they study.

IIRP coursework typically centers on real-life personal and professional challenges and projects. Faculty-centric lectures are largely replaced by faculty-facilitated online group engagement. The highly specialized nature of our mission and graduate curriculum is a strength for these learners as this allows our faculty and programs to be highly responsive to student and employer needs.

There are layers of innovation that make this possible beyond our wonderful faculty. For the IIRP, this innovation is also made possible by smaller and simpler governance structures and lean leadership hierarchies. This enables increased budgeting for student support, instruction and technology in a low-margin industry.

Investing in instructional talent, student support, content creation and innovative delivery capacity will be critical in this next century for higher education institutions that hope to perform at their best.

These types of structural innovations are often far more challenging to traditional institutions than curriculum and program changes. Big institutions might adopt some of them eventually, but they are not likely to be the first (or second) movers. It is much easier for smaller, leaner and more responsive institutions to fill this vital innovation niche.

Beer, another higher education-related industry, provides a great example. Not too long ago in the U.S., three or four nearly identical brands mass produced a nearly identical product. Consumer options were, to say the least, limited. Then, some creative entrepreneurs exploited the market malaise and started making beer interesting again. The craft-brewing industry may not have robbed Anheuser-Busch its 20% market share yet, but it has definitively changed what people look for in a pint (or red plastic cup) of brew. The larger labels have had to adapt and expand their offerings.

Similarly, higher education needs and tastes are changing fast. The future will include a much more diverse array of higher education options. Smaller and more nimble providers will push this innovation curve by offering increased variety, creativity and responsiveness in better meeting the needs of 21st century students.

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