The Changing Business Model of Higher Education

Nancy Blankfard, AIA


There are a lot of signs telling us that higher education is changing. Take a look at the recent headlines, some of which I've referenced at the end of this discussion. The facts are compelling. Professors are asked to teach more students with less money. Students are required to take fewer classes to graduate within four years--which they rarely do--and therefore are learning fewer skills. The cost of higher education is exponentially climbing and students are graduating without finding gainful employment. Our higher education system has become a model that is not sustainable.

I have two questions that we should be addressing as architects and designers:

  • As we strive to know our client's business better than they do, how are we advising them?
  • Are we well positioned to adapt our services in response to this changing business model?

Online education and MOOC's (massive open online courses) are leading the way to answer many of these problems. MOOC's, in particular, have the potential to provide just-in-time training/education. Given the top-10 jobs today did not exist six years ago, MOOC's seem like a perfect solution for students who need to brush up on current topics.

Curious about the model, I signed up for a Modern and Contemporary American Poetry class through Coursera last fall. Along with 40,000 other students from around the world, I tuned in for discussions at the Kelly Writers House on the University of Pennsylvania campus. It took one week for me to see the "writing on the wall" for higher education as we know it. The curriculum was rigorous. The assignments and quizzes demanded thoughtfulness and I had to demonstrate mastery over the topic. If I didn't, my peers would comment--and they did! 

There is little market for a certificate of completion in this class--YET. Online education also is changing the business model of our higher ed