The Rise of the Rest

Keynote Address by President Joseph E. Aoun
2013 Meeting of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada Ottawa, Ontario
June 27, 2013

Thank you and good afternoon.

Today, I would like to talk to you about the rise of nontraditional learners in higher education. These nontraditional learners—part-time learners, midcareer professionals, adult learners, lifelong learners—are spurring major changes to higher education, both in the United States and around the world.

In higher education in the United States, 85 percent of undergraduates are nontraditional. This is quite important because their expectations are very different from the expectations of students who are more traditional. What do these non-traditional learners want? They want to choose programs with a strong value proposition and very solid outcomes. They ask, “Will these programs get me jobs?”

Also, they want programs to be flexible, to be adaptable; they want options that fit into their family lives and their professions; and they want an experiential approach. Many of them, as you know, are working professionals. They want to be able to integrate their own work experience with the classroom experience. If they’re not working, they want an experiential approach, in order to gain work experience.

When we ask employers, they give a very strong preference to students at all levels – traditional and nontraditional – who have had an experiential approach to learning. Why? Because these students have both classroom experience and work experience.

So, non-traditional learners are the majority and they need flexible, outcomes-based education. Now, let’s look at our four-year, research institutions, as well as our four-year colleges.

What do we see? Are we able to serve these non-traditional learners?

Well, our system is a residential system. We’re focusing on full-time students. Most of us are non-experiential. We focus more on input measures; we spend a lot of time bragging about SAT scores and the GPA of incoming students. We also spend a lot of time rejecting students. The more you reject students, the higher your brand is.

We have a growing demand, yet we are restricting access at all levels.

Our residential system is not able to meet the needs of most students. That’s why all these innovations that you’re hearing about on a daily basis are gaining a foothold in higher education.

So what kind of innovations are we seeing? Some are technology driven—online, hybrid, MOOCs. These are gaining acceptance. In addition, new learning models are emerging. You have heard of competency-based education, in which some institutions are saying, “We are going to make sure by the time you leave that you have certain skills, and you are going to pay only if you have those skills.”

We are also seeing adaptive learning. Traditionally, we are teacher-centered, but part-time students cannot afford to be teacher-centered. They are pushing us toward curricular approaches that are learner-centered. As a result, more and more universities are adopting adaptive learning and the experiential model.

Even as technology is driving innovation and new learning models, we also are seeing career-focused models emerging in a stronger way. We are seeing professional certificates and a very substantial increase in professional masters’ degree programs. We are even seeing custom programs developed by companies, in partnership with universities, for their employees.

Those innovations have two features in common: they are customer-centric and they are employer-centric.

They are customer-centric in that they seek to articulate a strong value proposition and they focus on strong outcomes, affordability, flexibility, and adaptability.

In terms of the employer, how many times do you hear the CEOs or the employers telling you there is a mismatch between the students and the job needs? Employers are saying, “The graduates don’t have what it takes.” This is why many of these innovations are trying to fill the gaps between skills and employer expectations.

Let me give you an example of an employer-centric approach. Companies used to send some of their executives to universities for two years, but now they don’t want to do that. They find that after getting their degrees, employees start looking for jobs at other companies.

In response, IBM approached Northeastern some years ago, and we put together a high-tech MBA, exclusively for their executives. We deliver it online onsite—here in the United States, in China, in India, in the Philippines.

You see the trend—customer-centered, employer-centered, outcome-based. The important question is: What are the implications for our model of higher education?

Almost all of our universities are vertically integrated. We do knowledge creation—research; we do knowledge dissemination—teaching; we do assessment; we do credentialing—the diploma. Our model is very vertically integrated. Now we are seeing this change, and horizontal integration is starting to develop.

Now we have outfits providing courses to everyone – for a fee, or for free. This has led to a lot of confusion about which courses are valuable in terms of a university program, which is why the American Council on Education stepped in began to assess the quality of those courses. Now, some universities are saying to their students, “If you go and take those courses—wherever they are—and those courses have been assessed as worthy by the ACE, we’re going to test you, and we’re going to give you the diploma.”

Already, the system is no longer vertically integrated in many places. We’re witnessing the onset of horizontal integration.

But that is not all.

I have described so far what’s happening in the United States and other countries with well-developed systems of higher education. We’re serving traditional, full-time students who are a minority of the people seeking education. Let’s keep that in mind, and let’s look—somewhat simplistically—at the rest of the world.

Let’s focus on the emerging world – the global frontier of higher education. What do we see? An enormous demand for higher education and very ambitious plans. India wants to achieve a skilled workforce of 500 million people within the next decade.

It’s an ambitious plan, and it demonstrates that demand is not an issue. Demand is not an issue in the United States and Canada, and demand is not an issue worldwide.

So what are the challenges? Obviously, the sheer scale, plus the lack of trained faculty and outdated curricula. In addition, the focus of these emerging systems is not yet on outcomes, so there is a big mismatch between jobs and degrees.

I have colleagues from China who tell me about the mismatch between the degrees, the jobs available, and what the graduates want to do. That’s why China is seeing more graduates without jobs. With no experiential focus and no focus on outcomes, the expectations of students and employers do not line up.

In India, 75 percent of the graduates with a technical degree are being retrained for up to two years by the big employers. These graduates already have the technical knowledge, yet their employers need to teach them the soft skills—the ability to write, communication, reasoning, and teamwork.

However, traditional Western models cannot help because they are not scalable; we try to restrict the number of students by definition. Our models have not been adaptable and are ill-suited for many emerging economies.

You hear in the United States that MOOCs are going to help the whole world, but the whole world is saying, “Wait a minute. I don’t have connectivity.” In some countries, you don’t have connectivity; you don’t have the Internet; you don’t have electricity. How is a MOOC going to help those students?

Not only that, but the curricula are not relevant or adapted to local needs. In Pakistan, one higher education institution designed an online curriculum that uses donkey carts to explain physics. This makes sense. They live with donkey carts.

So we tout that our models are going to help the whole world? The whole world is saying, “Wait a second, that’s too simplistic.”

Also, not only aren’t the MOOCs relevant in some places, but they don’t have an experiential component, so by the end the students are not job-ready or career-ready. They don’t teach the soft skills, the teamwork and problem solving.

So what can we expect? If there’s a gap, this gap is going to be filled. And it’s going to be filled by people who are closer to it.

We are seeing attempts now—and they are at their beginning—to launch new models in India and other emerging economies where the demand for higher education is large. What are the characteristics of these models? Low cost, scalability, access instead of exclusion, flexibility, physical nimbleness, outcome orientation, and relevance to the environment they are in.

They are launching models that work for them, and they are going a step further. They are saying to the other emerging economies, “We understand you more than the Western world understands you,” and so they are branching out. There are Indian universities starting campuses in Malaysia and other parts of the world. They are saying, “We understand your language; we understand your predicament.”

This is reverse innovation that starts in the emerging world and spreads, often into more established economies.

We see reverse innovation in teaching, and we see it in research. In the Western world, we have had the luxury of looking at R & D without consideration of cost. We all know that our faculty members are brilliant—they devise new inventions, regardless of cost.

Emerging economies can’t afford to do that. The innovations there couple cost with research and development. This is new for us and it has the potential to affect us greatly, because some of these results are coming back and getting into the Western market.

There is a very well documented study of reverse innovation. In India, GE launched new products based on imaging research done there, and then the company sent them back to the United States at a fraction of the cost. They worked with Indian engineers and Indian universities, and the result was imaging machines that could be produced at a fraction of the cost in the West.

Our models are going to be impacted not only by the demands of nontraditional learners in our countries, but also by this reverse innovation—educational solutions are going to come from the rest of the world, and then become the norms for us.

This is why I titled this talk, “The Rise of the Rest.” The rest refers to the non-traditional learners in our countries and worldwide. Higher education now has a choice. Either we restrict ourselves and serve only the traditional learners—namely, we serve the minority—or we look at serving all the learners.

Up until now, we have decided to serve the traditional learners. What has been the consequence? The consequence is the boom in for-profit higher education. The fastest growing institutions of higher education are the for-profits in the private sector worldwide. They saw the opportunity and they are taking full advantage of our restricted focus.

Higher education is a great situation. 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.

Those are the choices we’re facing. I am very happy that higher education is facing a choice of a growing demand rather than a disappearing one. The opportunity is there. Let’s take advantage of it.