The Transformation of American Universities

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How colleges are rethinking everything - and students are taking notice.

By Emily Letterman 
University Writer/Editor

A prevailing notion in American society has intensified in recent years – higher education may no longer be the preeminent destination for high school seniors. High-profile admission scandals, rising costs leading to mountains of student loan debt, unprecedented demographic shifts and a politically-influenced perception of a college education have left American institutions with declining enrollment numbers across the board. Overall, college enrollment decreased 1.7 percent this year – the eighth consecutive year of decline – according to data by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. That’s roughly 300,000 less students in school this year alone.

Compounding factors beg the question – is traditional higher ed dead?

The answer is as complicated as the question itself. To be sure, the waters are muddy, but experts say the river of knowledge flowing through America’s institutions isn’t likely to run dry anytime soon.

“Institutions must evolve to stay relevant. Universities must offer new programs that are attractive, relevant and meet students’ needs,” says Drury University President Dr. Tim Cloyd. “But I am optimistic. American higher education has always been in a continuous process of reinventing itself.

“Is higher ed dead? Far from it; maybe just disrupted. It may not look like it used to.”

Cloyd points out the perception of higher education is a mixed story and often deeply negative – facing significant criticisms from the political left and the right. Among the biggest issues that need to be addressed are the belief that higher education is a breeding ground for liberal ideas and strange views; the perceived value of a college degree in getting a job; the public’s understanding of the true cost and return on investment; and the truth about student debt.

“Since the beginning of time, the young have wanted to discover, to push boundaries and to challenge existing authority and societal norms. This is still the case. This is a formative age,” Cloyd says. “However, the role of higher education in society has always been to challenge prevailing points of view. It is only through engaging face-to-face in the open, free expression of ideas that we progress as a culture.

“We must continue to defend and celebrate this critical place our institutions have in society. Higher education has been the bedrock of enlightenment, science, reason and liberty in the struggle against superstition, blind emotion and prejudice. The founders of our republic affirmed the role of education and higher education in the preservation of a democratic and free society.”


In sheer numbers, millennials are on their way to overtaking the ubiquitous baby boomer, who dominated American culture and customs for decades. But just as quickly as higher learning began to accommodate their large numbers, millennials are on their way out of school. With overall birth rates on the decline – falling for the fourth consecutive year in 2018 according to the National Center for Health Statistics – millennials are leaving a gap that experts say most likely won’t be filled. When it comes to Generation Z, there are simply fewer students in high school, so there will be fewer students headed to college. Of those heading to college, another gap is forming – the value gap.

In his book, “College (Un)bound,” Chronicle of Higher Education editor-at-large Jeffrey Selingo offers this gap as one of five disruptive forces that will forever change higher ed.

“In the face of several stinging reports about the limited learning that goes on during the undergraduate years, prospective parents and students want to know if the academic experience will be rigorous enough to justify the costs … that will play a greater role in the calculation of value,” he writes.

Selingo claims most colleges are tone deaf to these concerns and it could be their undoing.

“Unlike Europe, America has always been obsessed with pragmatism and the utility of what one learns,” says Cloyd. “Residential undergraduate institutions, historically, have not done a good job of showing how their curriculums prepare students for careers. Their showcasing it through developing critical enduring skills and competencies, such as analytical thought, the ability to write and speak well, the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes, as well as creativity, the ability to analyze an issue or problem from multiple angles while knowing your own view may not contain the whole truth.”

How do institutions overcome these two gaps? Cloyd says they empower alumni and trustees with knowledge of the value-added picture – a college education leads to a better quality of life. It is a fact backed by numerous scientific studies. According to a U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics study in 2017, the employment rate was higher for those with higher levels of educational attainment. Roughly 86 percent of those with a college degree or higher were employed, compared to 72 percent of those who completed high school and just 42 percent of those without a high school diploma. The study went on to report the typical graduate of a four-year college earns about 70 percent more than someone with only a high school diploma, while those with advanced degrees make about 120 percent more.

But the pocketbook isn’t the only quality-of-life factor in the balance.

“There is a compelling corollary between educational level and well-being,” says Steve Edwards, president and CEO of CoxHealth and a Drury trustee. “This is especially true for our health. Compared to those with a college education, Americans with less education on average die nine years earlier, and they live with greater illness, including obesity, stroke, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and psychological stress.”

According to Edwards, it boils down to resources and knowledge. A degree most often leads to a job with better benefits, such as health insurance, vacation, sick leave and even retirement.

“College graduates with higher income are allowed to generally create a more stable living circumstance,” he says. “They can afford to live in safer and healthier neighborhoods, they can purchase healthier foods, pay for health care and they even tend to have more time for activities associated with well-being.”


Disruption isn’t exclusive to the residential college experience, but also graduate and nontraditional learning. If there are fewer overall students in the mix, how will universities maintain or continue to grow? Cue the transformation. The most obvious answer is the rise of online education. Many students are opting out of brick and mortar classrooms and into virtual ones. According to Inside Higher Ed, 33 percent of all students took at least one online course last year.

“Online classes are appealing for adult students,” Drury’s Cloyd says. “Professional, graduate and nontraditional adult education is focused on a different demographic and is often focused on market ready skills. There is an ease factor there. It’s a different modality, but it does not change the quality of or need for education.”

While a rise in online courses has long been seen as the decline of traditional education, there is little to prove that is actually happening. In 2012, massively open online courses were hailed as the savior of higher ed – able to extend free global access for anyone who wanted it. Co-creator Sebastian Thrun was even honored with a Smithsonian magazine American Ingenuity Award for Education and the New York Times declared it “The Year of the MOOC.”

But MOOCs experienced a failure to launch. By 2017, parent company Udacity declared MOOCs “are dead” and moved into the corporate training realm.

What happened? Long story short: Retention. Inside Higher Ed reports just 3.3 percent of people who enroll in a MOOC course ever complete it. That’s compounded with another dismal fact for MOOCs, the percentage of first- time users who subsequently enroll the following year has fallen every year since 2012, from a high of 38 percent to 7 percent in 2017.

“The future of online education is through blended classes,” Cloyd says, “where students have a connection to their professor, their fellow students and a stake in the outcome.”

Drury has already embraced the online inclination. In addition to traditional seated and blended online classes, the university launched synchronous video classes this fall, putting Drury in an enviable position to reach students on multiple levels.


American institutions are aware of the current collegiate perception, and while many have taken minor steps to beef up traditional enrollment, Drury took a leap forward with the launch of Your Drury Fusion, a new undergraduate curriculum.

“This isn’t about what the program does for Drury, but rather the possibilities it gives our students,” says Dr. Beth Harville, Drury provost and executive vice president. “Dr. Cloyd challenged us to look at our program, look at the curriculum and determine how we could envision the experience to best fit their needs.”

Launched this fall, the program merges professional goals and personal passions. Students will graduate with three credentials and hands-on experience with real-world projects allowing them to jump into the job market on day one, equipped with both hard and soft skills.

“Fusion sets us apart. It’s unlike anything any other university is doing and other schools are taking notice,” says Harville. “The students wanted their education in a more holistic way. They said, ‘Don’t give me a bunch of gen ed classes, show me why they matter.’”

Bucking the national trend, Drury’s undergraduate enrollment held steady this fall – marking a 12 percent overall growth during the past four years. Addressing the whole person is at the core of Your Drury Fusion. Fusion is the value-added education students and parents are looking for with its focus on academic life coaching through the Robert and Mary Cox Compass Center and 16 new certificates designed to fuse interests in unique and significant ways. Cloyd says Drury’s goal was to create a transformational experience which would add relevance and vitality to what was already a strong undergraduate program.

“Fusion allows us to recognize students’ passion and say, ‘Yes, you can do that here – you can find your purpose and your profession.’ It also allows us to help them expand in every way,” he says. “People like Thomas Jefferson saw higher education as an essential component of democracy and civil discourse, the cultivation of tolerance and being able to see the world through someone else’s eyes. If you don’t have that capacity, you begin to lose the ability to appreciate the human dignity of all people.

“That’s the power of higher education.”