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Disruption at Regional Universities: Challenges and Opportunities.

KENNESAW, Ga. | Jun 15, 2023

Dr. Khawaja SaeedDr. Khawaja Saeed As Internet diffusion accelerated in the early 2000s, businesses were faced with the grave reality of commoditization of their products and services. Market participants had to contend with operating in a global marketplace. Consumers were armed with better knowledge and price transparency intensified the competitive landscape. Companies that digitized their businesses and offered exclusive or nonreplicable products and services survived.  It has taken some time, but the education sector is facing a similar inflection point. Multiple factors are contributing to the commoditization of education.

  • Access to knowledge: Knowledge was already available online but is now being bundled into intelligence-based systems that interact with the learner in a conversational mode. A case in point is how universities are struggling with finding the right way to respond to ChatGPT. The technology will get much better with time and it can probably do a better job of teaching basic concepts with learning-centered assessments. As the technology gets better, more advanced concepts could also be GPT’ed. The evolution of technology will further accelerate this process.
  • New market entrants: Non-traditional educational players (NTEPs) and Mega Tech companies (such as Google, Amazon, etc.) pose another challenge. NTEPs have mainly focused on the non-credit market. However, they are putting together mini structures that can eventually lead to full degree programs in the future. They can scale up when needed given the robustness of their learning management infrastructure. Mega Techs are either putting together their own educational training programs or collaborating with NTEPs in offering certifications that directly lead to entry-level positions and the acquired skills are transferrable to roles in other firms with minimal retraining. This has implications for a large market that is currently interested in formal degree programs but may opt out because of the lure of getting a job at one of the leading tech firms.
  • Shrinking pie: The enrollment cliff is not a secret. A quick review shows that birth rates have been declining steadily since the 70s and internal migration patterns favor the Southern and Coastal States. The central and midwestern schools are getting hit with significant enrollment declines. Some schools are better prepared for this shift than others. If the college-eligible population continues to decline, everyone is fighting for a shrinking pie, which may expand a little if we consider the international market. The impact of the shrinking pie is compounded by an environment in which questions are being raised about the value of formal undergraduate and graduate degree programs.
  • Duality of impact: It is important to note that large universities with high rankings are relatively immune to these challenges. With acceptances in single digits, they have no shortage of high-achieving students jumping hoops to get in. The impact is the most on regional universities that offer the promise of social mobility. They cater to a student population that is cost sensitive, handles work and education requirements simultaneously, and is focused on completing their program as soon as possible. So, retention, progression, and graduation, terms that are mostly heard in regional universities, have become key elements of the student success strategy at these institutions. The regional schools are getting squeezed between large universities and NTEPs. Large universities through minor adjustments to acceptance rates can expand their student base. NTEPs can ride the skepticism about the value of degree programs by enticing the job-focused student population through short skill-based programs that have direct pathways to employment.

The future viability of regional universities requires a major mind shift. Business as usual is the recipe for a slow demise.  The polar opposite goals of various stakeholders at these universities are accelerating the decline. Times are challenging, but there are many opportunities for a sustainable future.

  • Embeddedness in the Community: The success of regional universities is tied to the growth of the communities they serve. So, the focus should be on aligning their programs and research with the needs of the community in which they reside, even better if they can figure out ways to contribute to the growth of the region. They need to engage the regional economic development offices, chambers, major employers, and community organizations. Formulate strategies on how they can become the drivers of growth for the region by supporting the incubation of new businesses and becoming a platform for workforce development. This approach not only contributes to the growth of business activity but also to the social well-being of the region. Growth in economic activity is closely linked to a healthy community that values diversity in ideas and appreciates self-expression through various modes such as music, arts, and more.
  • Life Experiences: There is a general consensus that problem-solving, critical thinking, communication, and teamwork are important skills. So, the debate needs to focus on “how” students are trained in these skills. Experience is one of the best teachers. The infusion of immersive learning into programs can transform pedagogy to focus on learning through experience. However, the significant workload needed for the transformation often becomes a challenge.  Even more so when experiential learning is handed down as an institutional mandate. The difference between success and failure is visible in whether the institution embraces the transformation in pedagogy or approaches it from the perspective of checking the box for institutional compliance. Embedding the curriculum in the practices of community organizations offers an effective approach to overcoming this obstacle. Competitions, projects, embedded work experience, and other experiential learning experiences sponsored by community organizations tied to academic learning are viable options with potential. Similarly, research needs to focus on regional problems and breaking news grounds in areas critical to the region’s growth.
  • Convergence of thought: The word “shared governance” is heard frequently across campuses. Unfortunately, it has become a phrase that reflects a self-centered mindset. It is important to realize that in its true form, it endows decision rights but also demands responsibility. Do we want to weaponize shared governance to win at all costs or embrace it as a collaborative mindset through which various stakeholders come together to envision a future driven by positive risk-taking? We teach our students that the key ingredient in organizational success is when its members come together with a singular focus on a shared vision. The members are willing to go beyond self-interest, put aside their differences with others, and get behind a larger cause. The leadership needs to inspire the constituents to embrace that larger cause.

We know the recipe for success. But do we have the fortitude and compassion to follow through?

Khawaja A. Saeed
Chair, Department of Information Systems and Security & Professor of IS
Coles College of Business

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