The tumultuous state of higher education has become standard front-page news as colleges and universities close, consolidate, and grapple with foreboding market dynamics. We have experienced these realities close to home, watching Wheelock College merge with Boston University, Mount Ida shut its doors, and Hampshire College wrestle with its next steps. Since 2016, 101 colleges and universities in the United States have closed.
Stagnant high school graduation rates in the United States, diminished government spending and support, increased regulatory and technology costs, and squeezed personal incomes — coupled with a fundamental questioning of the value of a college education — have brought higher education to the precipice.
Yet, in this age of disruption, colleges and universities willing to think creatively, embrace change, and work collaboratively to meet the needs of students can create lifelong relationships that will sustain institutions, stakeholders, and society.
How do we reshape higher education so that we can succeed in this new era? We collaborate.
Colleges and universities have a long history of collaboration rooted in research and athletics. For example, Babson College, where I will become president on July 1, founded the Babson College Entrepreneurship Research Conference 38 years ago, fostering relationships with hundreds of universities around the world. We are part of the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) with 10 other colleges. And we develop shared educational experiences with Olin and Wellesley Colleges through the Babson/Olin/Wellesley Three College Collaboration.
Locally, collaborations like the Higher Education Consortium of Central Massachusetts and the Colleges of the Fenway enable students to cross-register for courses at multiple institutions. ProArts Consortium, anchored by Emerson College and Berklee College of Music, brings together seven colleges dedicated to the visual and performing arts to share resources and create joint programming. And nationally, consortiums like the Claremont Colleges in California and the Big Ten Academic Alliance leverage resources and work together to enhance the student experience.
Even with these initiatives, higher education overall has not kept pace with the highly networked society that has emerged from the rapid and ongoing social and economic transformations taking place in every other sector. Ubiquitous access to people, products, services, and knowledge is becoming standard.
By identifying and pursuing strategic partnerships with individuals and institutions — including not just other colleges but also businesses and nonprofits — we can create a multidimensional education ecosystem that supports a constellation of enhanced educational offerings at lower costs as we leverage each other’s competencies.
I envision the future of higher education through the lens of collaboration because I have experienced the power of this phenomenon first hand. As president of Philadelphia University, I led the merger with Thomas Jefferson University, in 2017, creating the new Jefferson. There were several key takeaways that can help inform strategic collaborations among other institutions.
First, collaboration is most successful following a time of self-reflection. Identify, and be honest about, your strengths and weaknesses. What are your values? What makes you different and unique? What do you bring to the potential partnership?
Also, seek diverse partners with shared values. Diversity among partnering organizations enhances the overall value of the collaboration. Select partners with complementary strengths, programs or services, and common overarching values and core principles.
And understand that collaboration comes in many forms. A merger is not the right path for most institutions. The collaboration continuum extends to all types of partnerships, and being open to a multitude of unique combinations and structures maximizes your potential for success.
I am particularly excited by the possibilities for collaboration at Babson. As the global leader in entrepreneurship education for more than four decades, Babson is a place where collaboration is embedded into teaching, learning, and working.
Entrepreneurship is inherently collaborative. It is a way of thinking, reasoning, and acting that is opportunity-obsessed, holistic in nature, and leadership-balanced for the purpose of creating and capturing value. The iterative, action-oriented nature of entrepreneurship education teaches that failure is neither permanent nor defining, and it cultivates within Babson’s students a desire for continuous learning.
Today’s students were born into a newly transformed landscape of hyper-connectivity. They are network-imbued digital natives and, from day one, they have operated in a world where collaboration is intuitive and necessary.
The educational experience is no longer linear. It is not limited to a four-year experience with a defined beginning and end. Rather, students seek a long-term, ongoing relationship with education, one with many connection points over the course of their lives.
And colleges of all kinds, by finding and pursuing diverse partnerships, have the potential to reinvent themselves to override the market forces threatening higher education.
Higher education is undoubtedly experiencing a period of disruption. But disruption is the transformative force that will compel colleges and universities to reimagine themselves. And they will emerge stronger, if they survive.
Stephen Spinelli Jr. is president-elect of Babson College.