opinion

Is College Dead or Just Sleeping in Class?

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Fewer jobs are requiring college degrees. Overall college enrollments are decreasing. And now there’s "Z," the next generation of students. They’re entrepreneurial creators, they don’t like being “talked at” in class, and their fiscal conservatism may dissuade them from buying into higher education at all.

While MOOCs may be disrupting classrooms, they won’t be enough to satisfy this new batch of students or the workforce they’re entering. Is college dead? Probably not. But a shock to the system might help it remain relevant in a world where information is no longer a commodity and students are practical purchasers. Here are some shifts in thinking to consider.

Change your settings

Everyone wants more space--schools, departments, students. Still, colleges don’t take advantage of all the space they have--or could have. In studying the student experience at one college in Pasadena, CA, our designers noticed that students didn’t utilize the school’s expansive outdoor campus. Despite ideal weather and hilltop views, students equated being outside with wasting time or not working. In the intense culture at this school, this sent the wrong message. Our advice? Add function to these spaces with worktables, WiFi, and outlets; offer alternative spaces for students to get stuff done (even if they’re just recharging their batteries).

But don’t just go outside. For Gen Z, virtual is reality; so invest heavily in digital real estate. This isn’t about recorded lectures or self-guided work, but creating virtual campuses with their own tools and physics. Look at the success of the video game Minecraft where kids build and shape an entire world. Z is a generation comfortable with collaborating and creating within the matrix. Schools have the opportunity to own platforms worthy of access, where students can prototype ideas and practice newfound skills. A Second-Life-like campus could allow students to leave behind projects or visit the legacy of legendary alum.

Train Teams

Historically, the mindset was, go to college, gain some level of expertise, and get a job. But in business today--where those jobs exist--companies are facing increasingly complex challenges while fighting (or trying to create) industry disruptors. Change is everywhere; just look at traditional hotels vs Airbnb.

Not only will people need more skills in the future, they'll need to be able to work effortlessly with others in order to connect ideas to reality. If the innovation business teaches anything, it's that individuals may have ideas, but they need to connect to other people in order to see success.

Colleges should take a hint from their competition: startups. Focus on designing high performing teams who can rally their passions, rather than developing super smart individuals. Today there are many schools that teach entrepreneurship and some even require students to start businesses. Design schools, particularly, seem to do a good job of breaking down silos and forming partnerships. The Rhode Island School of Design and MIT Sloan offer a joint class on product design and development. These types of classes create tangible outcomes and the chance to experience different types of people/skill sets. There is an opportunity for colleges to take these teams a step further and cultivate collaborative chemistry; training teams to be greater than the sum of their parts.

Today, companies rely on cross-functional teams to carry out work that silos can’t. In business, there is a cult of collaboration mindset founded on the belief that success lies with a teams’ depth and breadth of skill, tight-knit relationships, and work obsession. In the future, colleges should build teams of specialists that are adaptable, communicative, and passionate while introducing companies to the value of hiring graduates in groups, rather than à la carte.

Offer Brain Maintenance

The arbitrary construct that an undergraduate education lasts 4 years and requires X number of credit hours doesn’t make any sense. Many millennials took advantage of this 4-year college education vacation--and then when they couldn’t find jobs, went back to grad school. Our research shows Z is much more certain about who they are, and they’re making practical plans for the future. When Z shops for post-high school education, they’ll do it with a deliverables-focused mind.

College today is paid to teach students information they’ll cram and forget; they rely on staying relevant to alumni via a loose affinity based on nostalgia. When the customer requirement shifts to “I’m paying you to keep me sharp” and a new generation demands ongoing brain maintenance, higher education might want to rethink its model. Offer education more as a lifelong membership and not a 4-year program. With technology’s constant evolution and learning shifting to a lifelong practice, schools can show value by offering students a subscription to their institution--a gym for the mind. That will also relieve the burden businesses feel to pay to educate their workforce.

If higher education wants to command its insane price tags and expect the next generation of students to pay, it has to be as adaptable and radical as the students themselves. In the future, we all need to learn how to learn in order to keep up with a world that is living in beta. 

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