Adapt or die: 3 ways to transform your institution in a changing landscape

With many schools hemorrhaging money and students unable to afford or questioning the value of a college education, band-aid solutions are no longer viable.
Michael Avaltroni
Michael Avaltroni
Dr. Avaltroni is the president of Fairleigh Dickinson University. He is a highly committed leader focused on innovative ways to bring about impactful change to learners across the higher education landscape.

There is plenty of evidence of the economic and personal benefits for individuals who earn a bachelor’s degree. Those benefits also extend to the communities where college graduates live and the industries in which they work. But when a myriad of obstacles prevent a majority of college-aged Americans from attaining that goal, there is something very wrong with our current higher education model.

It’s time for schools, particularly those predominantly serving lower-income and first-generation college students, to radically change their structure. Otherwise, our institutions will not survive, a loss that has catastrophic implications for the future of millions of underserved young people and for our nation, whose economic health depends on a growing skilled and educated workforce.

Investing in institutional strengths

One foundational construct that threatens the existence of many colleges is that we continue to function under the misguided concept that our schools can be all things to all students. It’s time we recognize that, given limited resources, it’s imperative to focus on our specific areas of strength that respond to community and student demands.

That does not mean we all should become technology institutes. There are colleges known for their outstanding economics, environmental science and communications programs, which attract high enrollment. Those are strongholds that schools should build upon rather than spreading themselves thin across dozens of disciplines that continue to languish with limited student interest and institutional support.

Fairleigh Dickinson University, for example, is known for its excellence in the health sciences. We have recently invested in expanding our longstanding programs into a newly created division, FDU Health, which offers a comprehensive education across the healthcare spectrum. Focusing on this area of strength in a high-demand field gives us the opportunity to align with industry and education partners that can enhance existing programs and develop new ones designed to fill critical industry needs while addressing the existential affordability problem.

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Becoming part of a wider ecosystem

With many schools hemorrhaging money and students unable to afford or questioning the value of a college education, band-aid solutions are no longer viable. Changing this trajectory requires a move away from colleges as standalone entities and embracing a larger educational ecosystem based on partnerships that will reduce the cost of a degree and create pathways to a successful future for disadvantaged students.

Collaborations with industries that co-create curricula while providing experiential learning opportunities can better prepare students with skills needed in a particular field. These partnerships can also provide direct avenues to employment, as well as financial support for students along the way.

One innovative approach is a recently launched collaboration between Bloomberg Philanthropies and major health systems that will turn high school classrooms in underserved communities into training grounds for future healthcare workers. Students will experience both classroom and hands-on learning, earn industry-related credentials and college credits, participate in paid internships and receive a guarantee of employment upon meeting the program requirements.

Another interesting partnership was developed to address the technology needs of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, which saw a disconnect between what students were learning in college and the types of skills the company required to fill its high-tech positions. The BlueSky partnership between the insurer and East Tennessee State University allows students to earn an accelerated bachelor’s degree in computing in two years while learning onsite at BlueCross, tackling the company’s real-world projects and being mentored by employees. In addition to students gaining employable skills and a job offer following graduation, it lifts the community by expanding career opportunities for lower-income students in Tennessee.

Building a bridge for community college students

This larger educational ecosystem should also benefit students who start their postsecondary education at a community college with the intention of eventually earning an undergraduate degree. This option is often chosen by those who see a four-year college as cost-prohibitive. Unfortunately, those students rarely succeed. In fact, only 13% of Title IV students attending a community college complete a bachelor’s degree within eight years.

Four-year and community college partnerships, like those formed by George Mason University with several two-year institutions in Virginia, show that those barriers can be overcome. Students co-enroll in both the community college and George Mason and take classes at both institutions, addressing many of the obstacles facing students who are unable to make a successful transition.

These types of partnerships could also encourage students to pursue degrees in lower-paying, but critically needed careers such as education. A less costly community college tuition rate for the first few years of schooling would make it possible for students to then complete their degree at a partner college or university.

In the face of daunting challenges, we must reimagine higher education to fulfill our promise of equity, access and economic mobility. By focusing on our strengths, forging innovative partnerships and creating inclusive pathways, we not only can save our institutions but can also ensure a better future for our students, their communities and the nation.


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