Viewpoint

The Urgent Need for Education Reform


Colleges and universities are some of the world's most important assets. We need these institutions to enable citizens to be passionate, lifelong learners and doers. We need them to help advance the world's thought capital and catalyze the translation of ideas into solutions. We need them to produce innovators who can solve the big social problems we face related to issues of health care and energy.

Unfortunately, post-secondary education in the U.S. is stuck in the 20th century with an Industrial Era business model that is both worn at the edges and unsustainable.

Only 40% of the U.S. adult population earns a college degree. That may have been fine when an industrial economy supplied good jobs to those without post-secondary education. It's not fine today. We need a larger percentage of the U.S. adult population to be able to earn that education at a price they can afford. Instead, the price of higher education is out of reach for many, and financial aid models are stretched to their breaking point.

Crisis Exacerbates Need for Change More troubling still, ongoing work at the Business Innovation Factory's Student Experience Lab reveals a wide disconnect between the way our country's youth thinks, learns, communicates, and collaborates and the way post-secondary institutions are organized to deliver value to the student.

Nothing short of system transformation will be sufficient to increase student access, enhance their experience, take advantage of the disruptive potential of technology, and improve the quality and cost effectiveness of the U.S. higher education system.

Most economists agree that new venture creation is the lifeblood of a vibrant economy and central to long-term, sustainable job growth. The current economic crisis has only magnified our country's need to stimulate entrepreneurship. But college and university support for entrepreneurs starting new companies, new social ventures, or even just bringing their skills into the work place, is insufficient.

A Very Different Picture Too many people have bought into the idea that new ventures are a direct result of our national investment in university-based research. The theory goes: Investment in basic and applied research in colleges and universities will create the ideas and technologies that enable entrepreneurs to start the next Google (GOOG), transform our health-care system, or solve global warming. I have been watching this movie for a long time and it doesn't seem to play out that way.

College and university presidents all say the right things. Speech after speech promotes their institutions as hotbeds for entrepreneurship. But when you look behind the scenes at the hallowed halls, you see a very different picture. Research universities are organized around the inputs to innovation. They are designed to maximize the flow of research dollars from government and private-sector sources into the establishment. Academic programs and policies are focused more on technology transfer and licensing opportunities than on creating an environment conducive for students and faculty to experiment with brand new ventures.

I have heard stories from some who have navigated the academic maze successfully to launch a new venture. They all talk off the record about how difficult it was and how close they came to throwing in the towel. You can see why when you look at the research university business model, which is complex and arcane, focusing on tuition, grants, and royalty revenue.

A Nation of Lifelong Learners Don't get me wrong. Investment in discovery research is important and must be sustained. But we need to rethink the national entrepreneurship support system. We need to experiment with new approaches designed to create more serial entrepreneurs, enhance the entrepreneur's experience, and accelerate new venture creation. And we must also improve our ability to translate discoveries into solutions. We focus far too much of our national innovation conversation and investment on the inputs (invention) and nowhere near enough on the outputs (innovation). Colleges and universities have an important role to help correct the imbalance.

We need our country's higher education system to help create a citizenry of passionate, lifelong learners. It should also enable the translation of new ideas and technologies into new ventures, higher wage jobs, and solutions for the big social issues of our time. Tweaking the current system will not work. We need to experiment with new higher education system approaches designed around the student and the entrepreneur. Wake up, colleges and universities. Tear down those Ivory Tower walls.
Saul_kaplan
Saul Kaplan is the founder and Chief Catalyst of the Business Innovation Factory. Saul also blogs at It's Saul Connected.

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