With competitive pressures increasing, University of New Hampshire President Mark Huddleston boldly declared during his State of the University address this month that under no circumstances would UNH acknowledge that students and their families are consumers of higher education.
"The first thing we should not do is yield to pressures to commodify higher education, turn students into customers and drive relentlessly to lower unit costs of production," he said. Turn students into customers? What does the president of the University of New Hampshire think that students who pay for a service (education) are?
Without some serious rethinking of how it does business, UNH's future is cloudy. Though UNH enrollment has been rising slowly, a 2012 report by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education predicted that five states would have huge, double-digit college enrollment reductions through 2020. New Hampshire was one of them, with a predicted 18 percent drop. U.S. Census data released last fall show that college attendance fell by close to half a million students in the 2012 academic year. Demographics and high tuition are reducing enrollment at traditional colleges and universities.
Meanwhile, enrollment in online college courses is rising rapidly. In 2002, only 10 percent of college students took an online course. By 2012, the figure was 32 percent, according to Babson Research.
MIT President Rafael Reif wrote in Time magazine last fall, "I am convinced that digital learning is the most important innovation in education since the printing press." In his speech, Huddleston mocked the idea of an online college graduate building a suspension bridge or being a competent lawyer. But Reif wrote that "digital technologies are remarkably good at teaching content." He even cited research.
"A 2011 study co-authored by physics Nobel laureate Carl Wieman at the University of British Columbia showed the benefits: when tested on identical material, students taught through a highly interactive 'flipped classroom' approach did nearly twice as well as peers taught via traditional lectures," he wrote.
Huddleston dismissed digital education as a scheme with a single goal: "just making education cheaper," which he said "is not for me a real option." But digital education is not the straw man that Huddleston presented. Mischaracterizing it as "just making education cheaper" allows UNH to dodge the question of why it is not making education cheaper. A two-year tuition freeze does nothing to lower costs.
To improve educational offerings and trim costs, Harvard and MIT are expanding their online offerings. UNH is building a new football stadium and asking for more state subsidies. Which represents the future of higher education, and which the past?