North­eastern Uni­ver­sity Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun told a group of higher edu­ca­tion writers from around the country on Friday night that there is one fun­da­mental change facing col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties today. This “tsunami,” as he described it, is not tech­nology. Instead, it’s the dra­matic shift in stu­dent demographics.

Aoun said that 85 per­cent of higher edu­ca­tion stu­dents today are non-​​traditional learners, a group that includes part-​​​​time stu­dents, working pro­fes­sionals, and off-​​​​campus res­i­dents. In other words, they’re not the tra­di­tional, res­i­den­tial under­grad­uate that col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties pri­marily focused on for many years.

These learners want the system to be flex­ible and focus on out­comes … that fur­ther their career,” Aoun said at a dinner recep­tion at the Edu­ca­tion Writers Asso­ci­a­tion con­fer­ence, which hosted by North­eastern this weekend. The con­fer­ence drew more than 70 edu­ca­tion jour­nal­ists from around the country.

Aoun noted that this trans­for­ma­tional shift also has impli­ca­tions for those in the room. “You are writing about higher edu­ca­tion at the most exciting time of our his­tory,” he said. “It’s a great time because every­thing is changing. Nothing will stay still, not even my job, because our jobs will be redefined.”

In an effort to under­stand the changing dynamics in higher edu­ca­tion, North­eastern last month released the results of its second annual national survey focusing on issues crit­ical to higher edu­ca­tion. One sig­nif­i­cant finding, Aoun noted, was that most Amer­i­cans, and par­tic­u­larly hiring decision-​​​​makers, believe that broadly applic­able skills such as writing and problem-​​​​solving are prefer­able to spe­cific industry exper­tise. Among the other find­ings were that a majority of Amer­i­cans believe higher edu­ca­tion is crit­ical to achieving career suc­cess and that a col­lege degree is more impor­tant than it was during their par­ents’ generation.

In his talk, Aoun also touched on the rise of mas­sive open online courses, com­monly known as MOOCs.  He said MOOCs set out to dis­rupt higher edu­ca­tion, but this dis­rup­tion has dis­ap­peared. “The MOOCs are going to be like elec­tricity. Everybody’s going to have it. And if you have elec­tricity, you don’t have an advan­tage. Every uni­ver­sity or learning insti­tu­tion will have either joined with them or have cre­ated its own ver­sion of MOOCs.”

North­eastern, he added, has built its own strategic approach to uti­lize the online model that blends online, on-​​site and expe­ri­en­tial learning. The uni­ver­sity, he said, offers one of the largest libraries of pro­fes­sional mas­ters pro­grams in the country deliv­ered in a variety of ways—including through its grad­uate cam­puses in Char­lotte, N.C., and Seattle and through exclu­sive part­ner­ships with industry, such as its high-​​tech MBA pro­gram with IBM in China, India, and the Philippines.

The dynamic changes affecting higher edu­ca­tion, Aoun noted, are hardly con­tained to America’s bor­ders. India, for example, has set the goal to edu­cate 500 mil­lion cit­i­zens over the next decade. “Do you think they will all be res­i­den­tial? Think again,” Aoun said.

Global learning, Aoun added, is a sig­na­ture com­po­nent of Northeastern’s edu­ca­tion model. The uni­ver­sity had nearly 8,000 co-​​​​op place­ments last year, and stu­dents are working, studying, and con­ducting research through experiential-​​​​learning oppor­tu­ni­ties in 93 coun­tries worldwide.

Despite the grand chal­lenges facing Amer­ican col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties, Aoun said the demand for higher edu­ca­tion is booming both in the U.S. and around the world. “This is why I sleep well at night. We must decide what this demand means and how to posi­tion our­selves to meet it,” he said. “The pur­pose of higher edu­ca­tion is to edu­cate, to advance knowl­edge through teaching and research. The system will have to adapt, but the demand is enormous.”

Fol­lowing his talk, Aoun fielded ques­tions from reporters on topics such as rising costs and finan­cial aid, rising enroll­ments among His­panic stu­dents, and the value of a lib­eral arts edu­ca­tion.  Sev­eral ques­tions also focused on the Obama administration’s new “col­lege score­card” rating system. Aoun said it ben­e­fits col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties, as well as stu­dents, to focus greater atten­tion on stu­dent out­comes rather than input mea­sures such as admission-​​related statistics.

It’s our respon­si­bility in higher edu­ca­tion to build those [output] mea­sures,” he said.

In con­clu­sion, Aoun said that the trans­for­ma­tional shifts in occur­ring today in higher edu­ca­tion also make the work of reporters like those in the room con­tinue all the more impor­tant. “I often hear that higher edu­ca­tion is not inno­vating enough. Actu­ally, there are enor­mous inno­va­tion hap­pening. Look at them, eval­uate them, nix them, or sup­port them,” he told the journalists.