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Millions more going to college?

July 16, 2009

By Joseph E. Aoun

THIS WEEK, President Obama unveiled a multibillion-dollar proposal to boost enrollment in the nation’s community colleges. His plan seeks to graduate 5 million more Americans from two-year colleges by 2020, and follows a more sweeping goal he announced during his first address to Congress in February: for America to once again have the highest number of college graduates in the world by 2020.

While some will question whether these prospective students are ready for college, many of us in higher education are asking ourselves: Are we ready?

In the months following the president’s congressional speech, there has been spirited debate in the education community about whether or not the president’s goal is attainable. A member of a federal commission on higher education called it “sheer fantasy.’’ Others have said the deadline should be pushed from 2020 to 2025.

To meet a similar goal outlined by the nonprofit education group the Lumina Foundation - to raise the percentage of college graduates from 39 to 60 percent by 2025 - an additional 16 million Americans will have to earn two-year or four-year college degrees over the next 10 to 15 years, depending on the end-date. The total number of students who currently attend the nation’s 4,300 colleges and universities is 19 million.

Much of the concern has focused on whether high schools are adequately preparing students for college. (A survey of professors by the Chronicle of Higher Education showed that 84 percent believe their students are “unprepared’’ or only “somewhat prepared’’ to pursue a college degree.)

There has been little discussion about the inverse challenge: Is higher education ready to accommodate - and graduate - millions of additional students?

The short answer is no. At least not without some diversification of the prevailing higher-education model. While the education sector is not typically known for its ability to adapt, we are about to see real change:

Rise of the for-profits: Often derided by many in the academy, for-profit education providers are beginning to improve the quality of their offerings. Many are expanding overseas with a goal of entering US markets. Those already in the United States are experiencing enrollment increases ranging from 10 to 45 percent. Because they are both affordable and accessible, those that provide quality education will succeed and expand their market share.

“No-frills’’ universities: In part a response to the successful for-profits, comparatively lean education providers are beginning to emerge as viable options. These institutions - such as Southern New Hampshire University or Stockton College in New Jersey - do not have the costly infrastructure that comes with residential learning and academic research.

Flexible degree programs: Today’s economy will make the ability to work while pursuing a college degree necessary for many more people. We are going to see an uptick in the number of institutions making part-time degrees a centerpiece of their academic offerings, rather than a peripheral endeavor. We will also see expanded opportunities to earn degrees at night and on weekends. In simple terms, the higher-education “consumer’’ will demand more choices, and many institutions will begin to provide solutions.

More online: While many institutions have made tentative forays into this terrain, interactive teaching and learning will dramatically expand, even at established colleges and universities. More than 3.9 million college students took at least one online course during the fall 2007 term, a 12 percent increase from fall 2006. Those that can offer real quality (this has been a sticking point for many educators) will provide valuable opportunity for thousands of students.

The message here is not “change or die.’’ American colleges and universities will remain the envy of the world. But if we’re going to meet the president’s goal, the current model will need to diversify.

Colleges and universities that are willing to open their doors to the opportunities ahead will have a tremendous impact - not only on the future of American higher education, but on the future of our nation.

Joseph E. Aoun is president of Northeastern University.