Reimagining College For The 21st Century

NelsonTo remain relevant in this century, colleges and universities face a period of significant and increasingly rapid transformation.This is the kind of transformation that will affect the roles and responsibilities of students, faculty and staff. It will impact the responsibilities and perceptions of our publics and our regulators. It may call into question the very methods by which we work to develop an educated population. This is the kind of transformation that scares a lot of people … and for good reason. There isn’t a roadmap for where we will end up in five or ten years.

This new century forces us to ask, “Given what we know or believe about the skills and orientations that will be needed by our students to not just survive, but prosper, in the emerging economy, how must we transform to serve our community?”  Our entire state is asking this question as a result of examining some harsh statistics.

Thirty years ago, college was reserved for about 20 percent of the population. Today, a national goal is to have 60 percent of the population between the ages of 25 and 64 hold an associate degree or more by 2020. Michigan is currently at about 38 percent, placing us number 31 out of 50 in the U.S. Our state goal is to become a “Top Ten Education State”.  A major measure to determine whether we’ve arrived is counting the number of degrees earned. Degrees have long been used as indicators that the holder has the capacities to be a good employee and member of society. A national cry has been heard to charge colleges and universities with the goal of generating more degrees, in less time, for less money and with more quality.

Nationally, many efforts have focused on the variables of number, time and cost of college degrees. Locally, Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) has established early colleges and dual enrollment so high school students can earn college credit. Traverse City Area Public Schools and NMC have developed collaborative foci on STEM (science, technology engineering and math) programming, including robotics. We will continue to see growth in industry-education partnerships such as surgical tech programming with Munson or construction trades with our local companies. This will be necessary because they have facilities, people and equipment that are required for the programs to work.

How and where our students learn will continue to evolve. The traditional classroom will be only one of many different learning environments. There will be more use of simulation in all fields to allow students to experience things they might see only once in their work life. Competency-based education will replace time-based classroom experiences and students will learn at individualized rates using technologies in ways that can’t yet be imagined. We are recognizing and evaluating learning that has taken place outside of the classroom in the military or workplace. Over the past three years, through the Michigan New Jobs Training program, we have worked directly with regional businesses to train employees that have resulted in more than 500 new jobs paying at least 175 percent of the minimum wage.

These changes will have a huge impact on the role of educators in the future. Technology will likely replace much of what we know as lectures. We have the opportunity to use our faculty and staff for those things only people can do: empower, engage, inspire and challenge. Students will come to us from a transformed K-12 system with experiences and expectations that support personalized learning. This will require unlearning old ways and learning new.

Any changes we make must focus on helping students acquire the characteristics and capacities required to succeed in a much faster changing world, global in nature and interacting with multiple cultures. Many estimate today’s youth will have six to ten careers during their lifetime. In order to succeed they need skills that aren’t defined by the traditional content-focused majors.

These include:
•    Learning to collaborate in multiple sometimes dissimilar networks
•    Having the ability to absorb shocks and adapt quickly
•    Being able to innovate and behave entrepreneurially
•    Learning how to learn and having a curiosity to learn
•    Problem solving, critical thinking and communicating effectively

At NMC, we recognize these skills are not “single course skills.”  We are working to imbed many of them throughout the curriculum and know these skills must be modeled by each and every individual involved in the learning enterprise. We are entering a future of unknowns – and that is what learning has always been about. Seeking to discover the unknowns. With a strong commitment to actively engaging in this discovery and changing the very nature of what we do in colleges, the degree will continue to be a credential of value for our future learners and the communities we serve.

Tim Nelson is the president of Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City.