By Thomas J. Botzman, Ph.D.
President of Misericordia University
Iconic American writer Mark Twain might have been able to identify with higher education if it was a living, breathing thing. After all, reports of its demise and ultimately, its death, have been greatly exaggerated by far too many sources to mention.
Since 2008, Moody's – one of the largest credit rating agencies – has doubled the number of ratings downgrades in the industry. Many colleges and universities are failing to attract enough students to fill their classrooms. And Harvard University Business School Professor Clayton Christensen predicts about half of the nation's nearly 4,000 institutions will fail in the next 15 years due to technological upheaval.
There is no doubt that higher education is changing. Responsible leaders at our colleges and universities understand that and are adapting to it. We know that technology is changing the way courses are delivered and credits are earned. Demographics also weigh on us as fewer students are graduating from high schools across the country and matriculating to our institutions. Add in reduced or flat federal and state support for a college degree, and you can see the sources of this gloom and doom.
If all this rings true, however, why aren't we just giving up? Why aren't students just logging on to their computers to get educated? Why are our colleges and universities in northeastern Pennsylvania and elsewhere succeeding rather than failing as business entities?
Higher education institutions are designed to get old, and remain vibrant and healthy. At Misericordia University, for example, we are celebrating our 90th anniversary. Unlike most other forms of business, we are designed to live very long lives. Professors take a long-term approach in designing curriculum and research agendas, often forgoing projects that may be topical today and gone tomorrow. They work to educate a student for four years and then to provide them the basis for lifelong learning as a graduate.
Higher education, then, is not "consumed" for only four years, and our liberal arts and science base is not a fad, but rather a foundation for success beyond the college years. The investments of time, talent and treasure in an education last a lifetime. In financial terms, a student is buying a "bond with dividends" that last throughout a career.
Colleges and universities boast human capital that is the envy of many other industries. Our intellectual property is developed and enhanced by experts in teaching, research and service. While others protect their property with patents and trademarks, we share it with others – even competitors – to develop it further and to make it sharper.
Higher education institutions add to the economic, social and cultural vitality of a region. There will always be a need for education to serve as the gateway to responsible citizenship and careers. Local school systems across the country are providing a steady stream of young and ambitious talent who will shape our collective future. Higher education is the gateway to licensure in many professional fields, especially in the field of health care that has become an economic driver for our region.
Our nation and our collective futures are tied to higher education. The need for education is not going to end simply because time passes and we become more educated and more technologically advanced.