Col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties must con­tinue inno­vating to meet stu­dents’ needs in higher education’s evolving global land­scape, North­eastern Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun told Cana­dian higher edu­ca­tion leaders last month.

Aoun deliv­ered a keynote address to the Asso­ci­a­tion of Uni­ver­si­ties and Col­leges of Canada in Ottawa on June 27. The con­fer­ence, “Cana­dian uni­ver­si­ties in a global con­text: A dia­logue on inter­na­tional trends and oppor­tu­ni­ties,” wel­comed higher edu­ca­tion leaders from around Canada to dis­cuss the changes in world­wide higher education.

Aoun’s address, “The Rise of the Rest,” focused on the way col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties have responded to the greatly increased demand for higher edu­ca­tion world­wide. He explained that “non-​​traditional” students—often older, part-​​time stu­dents who have returned to their edu­ca­tions mid-career—are actu­ally the majority of all stu­dents, but col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties con­tinue to restrict them­selves to serving the small minority of “tra­di­tional” students.

Non-​​traditional stu­dents are espe­cially focused on flex­ible, outcomes-​​based edu­ca­tion, a need that has driven many of the recent changes in higher edu­ca­tion. “They want to choose pro­grams with a strong value propo­si­tion and very strong out­comes,” he explained. “They ask, ‘Will these pro­grams get me jobs?’” he said, adding that non-​​traditional learners are par­tic­u­larly eager for expe­ri­en­tial learning opportunities—the inte­gra­tion of class­room and real-​​world learning.

While the new delivery models—Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs), adap­tive learning, and competency-​​based edu­ca­tion, among others—respond to these expec­ta­tions, they lack the expe­ri­en­tial com­po­nent that would truly address the mis­match between the skills of recent grad­u­ates and the expec­ta­tions of employers.

Pres­i­dent Aoun noted that rapidly devel­oping higher edu­ca­tion sys­tems, such as those in China and India, are also grap­pling with expo­nen­tial growth com­bined with a diver­gence between grad­u­ates’ skills and employers’ needs. The tra­di­tional, Western model of higher edu­ca­tion does not fit these emerging sys­tems so simply trans­porting the Amer­ican model may not work. The tra­di­tional Amer­ican system, Aoun explained, is based on lim­iting access whereas emerging coun­tries need sys­tems that can scale up to meet the demands of much larger pop­u­la­tions. There are other lim­iting fac­tors as well, including the fact that inno­va­tions like MOOCs are not fea­sible in places without con­nec­tivity or reli­able electricity.

He pre­dicted that we will see more inno­va­tions from these rapidly expanding higher edu­ca­tion sys­tems in which the key fac­tors are: “low cost, scal­a­bility, access instead of exclu­sion, flex­i­bility, phys­ical nim­ble­ness, out­come ori­en­ta­tion, and rel­e­vance to the envi­ron­ment they are in.” As emerging economies gen­erate their own dis­tinc­tive approaches, there is likely to be con­sid­er­able “reverse inno­va­tion,” in which Western higher edu­ca­tion sys­tems learn from the those approaches and adopt solu­tions from the emerging world.

In con­clu­sion, Pres­i­dent Aoun explained that this is a moment of tremen­dous oppor­tu­nity. “We are in a great sit­u­a­tion for higher edu­ca­tion,” he said. “There is an enor­mous demand world­wide. We are not suf­fering because we don’t have stu­dents. The demand is increasing, and it’s up to us to meet this demand or con­tinue to restrict ourselves.”

Aoun has been a leader in addressing crit­ical issues in higher edu­ca­tion. He is a member of an aca­d­emic advi­sory council that reports directly to Home­land Secu­rity Sec­re­tary Janet Napoli­tano, and he’s served as board chair of the Amer­ican Council on Edu­ca­tion. He has also led a coali­tion of higher edu­ca­tion leaders urging the preser­va­tion of fed­eral stu­dent loan programs.