The Evolution of American Higher Education

Institutions must shed old ways, leave comfort zone, to keep college education relevant, desirable.

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James M. Danko is president of Butler University in Indianapolis.

This is the season when many high school seniors are applying to and awaiting decisions from colleges and universities. It's an exciting time for those of us in higher education. We are reminded that learning is a lifelong pursuit. We are energized by the ideas and ambitions of our students.

While we are excited about the prospects of a new freshman class, the economic downturn of the last three years has exposed and amplified our society's skepticism about the value of higher education. Yes, people still want to go to college, but there are growing concerns about student debt and unemployment after graduation. Students worry about their return on investment. Institutional leaders worry about hiring and retaining effective faculty and administrators, and about the constant cost of maintaining physical and technological infrastructures.

Like the auto and newspaper industries, American higher education needs to innovate and reinvent itself if it's going to survive, thrive, and recapture its earlier glory. Industries that do not recognize the need for transition—or that do not manage that transition with agility—are likely to fail.

I would argue that we're already in the midst of a changing higher education model. My colleagues across the country and I are working to ensure that college is affordable and accessible. And we are looking carefully at our curricular and extracurricular programs to determine if the status quo truly meets the needs of our students.

The evolution of American higher education is predominantly taking place within this programmatic realm. Leaders of colleges and universities are working on strategic initiatives that engage and invest in our students. We are looking for new ways to nurture and encourage young minds so they can succeed throughout their lives in an increasingly competitive world.

In spite of this progress, the questions remain: Are we making changes that are meaningful enough, and are we making them quickly enough? Higher education improvement needs to be more of a widespread movement than an ad hoc effort. How do we join this crucial effort while staying true to our institutions' traditions and core values? Universities are typically change resistant, but change is imperative to ensure that a college education remains relevant and desirable. Let's shed old constraints and step outside our comfort zones.

Today's students are creative and inventive, and the colleges and universities they attend must be creative and inventive, too.

At Butler, this spirit of creativity will be manifested in the $5 million Innovation Fund, to which my wife and I have personally contributed. The Innovation Fund finances new programs that enhance the student experience, engage the community on our campus and beyond, and strengthen our learning environment. We are drawing from Butler's solid history of thinking creatively, with programs such as our partnership with the Indianapolis Public Schools, our "Real Life, Real Business" curriculum, and our student-run pharmacy for uninsured residents in the eastside neighborhood of Indianapolis.

The Innovation Fund will support new programs for a changing world in which creativity, agility, and a spirit of collaboration and entrepreneurship are more important than ever before.

Not all Innovation Fund ideas will be successful, to be sure—but enough of them will be to enable us to advance the institution. I'm aiming to position the administrators at Butler to not only create internal change, but to anticipate and react to external changes quickly. As Butler becomes an agile problem solver at the organizational level, we become a better role model for our students and for other colleges and universities.

Those of us in university administration must finally embrace, deep within ourselves and within the bones of our institutions, the fact that business as usual in American higher education is over. We have to try new things. Our students are justifiably demanding more accountability. We need to embrace blue-sky thinking and generate new ways to realize these ideas. By doing so, we can ensure that a college education yields the great return on investment that it should.