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 education clients. Education being available anytime, anywhere, on anything for anyone is the expectation for students today. You may say, "Well that works for standard lecture courses, like English or History, but not for Performing Arts or Health Sciences." But you'd be wrong. At the last National Association of Schools of Theater conference, faculties were sharing tips at a session called "Online Delivery." Not only are they teaching performance acting online, it's the first class to fill when offered at the same time as a traditional in-person class! Health sciences have a similar story. Taping your work, whether with a mannequin or performing Shakespeare, can show proficiency the same way it does in the traditional classroom. And being critiqued by 40,000 anonymous peers has its benefits (yes, and drawbacks, too).

Imagine a world where access to the best education is free. It's important for us to recognize this opportunity for higher education and advise clients to embrace their mission and purpose to remain strong, viable education providers. Their mission can be the same, but the execution might be very different.

If Nathan Harden is right in his article The End of the University as We Know It, by 2060 half the universities operating today will cease to exist. That's 2,250 vacant universities around the country that will need new uses. 

With reduced sources of income and funding, universities will have even more pressure to have their buildings operate efficiently and effectively. As architects and designers, we can help Universities reimagine the classroom online by transforming our expertise in designing media-rich physical classrooms into a new expertise of creating flexible on-line environments that straddle the physical and cyber worlds.

For further discussion, see these references on the changing model of higher education:

"Did You Know?" YouTube video.

"Revolution Hits the Universities," The New York Times, January 26, 2013. 

"The End of the University as We Know It," The American Interest, January/February 2013.

"College Is Dead. Long Live College!," Time Magazine, Oct. 18, 2012.