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Is the future of higher ed in Fayette, Iowa?

Today's guest blogger is Dr. Alan Walker, president of Upper Iowa University.

Upper Iowa enrolls 900 students on its Fayette campus and several thousand more in distance education, online and independent study. In that sense, the college and its president are comparatively global and forward-thinking.

No one has to point out that the last year has seen very troubling economic developments on a global scale. Not a week goes by that I don't read or hear about the significant challenges confronting U.S. institutions of higher education. Private institutions that rely on their larger endowments for significant portions of their annual operating budgets are now faced with having to cut their budgets. Public institutions are facing significant reductions in state and federal support. In both cases, the effect and fate is much the same: salary and hiring freezes, capital improvement projects delayed or indefinitely postponed, and faculty and staff layoffs.

During the current recession and beyond, many organizations will recede, some will find ways to maintain what they have, and a few will ascend.

To be ascending in today's political and economic environment and to deliver the promise of their value proposition, higher education institutions must be much more strategic. Traditional endowments will always be vulnerable to market fluctuations. Many institutions may also see enrollment declines among their usual demographic audiences. In continuing what has been a steady, long-term trend, state support will represent a shrinking percentage of total operating budgets for public institutions of higher education, even after this current economic recession ends. As revenue streams continue to weaken, we must be creative and develop new and different sources of revenue.

While many institutions have seen increased enrollments, as a result of the economic downturn and more unemployed people going back to school, another result has been the realization that higher education institutions cannot operate as usual and must provide opportunities for students who are also working, taking care of families, and those abroad.

It is worth considering that the most rapid growth in demand for higher education may not be in the United States, but rather overseas in countries with a growing middle class, such as China and India, whose culture places a premium on higher education, and where there is less competition. We must find a way to capture a share of this growing international market in countries with friendly governments and trade-friendly policies, and where U.S. degrees and other products are in high demand.

For the academic community, this will require thinking beyond traditional study abroad programs, student and faculty exchanges, and recruitment to principle campuses in the United States. In other words, the usual embodiment of what is commonly known as "internationalism" on the campuses of most U.S. colleges and universities needs to change. Instead, the future is in international centers, branch campuses, and online degree programs that can be accessed from anywhere in the world. But, the window of opportunity for doing this may be limited.

Long regarded as the best in the world, the next decade or two may find us in a different position as other countries identify higher education as a strategic national priority and then vastly outspend the United States to catch up, eventually surpassing us. Make no mistake, it's already starting to happen.

Because of the Internet and the ease and convenience of different methods of delivery, more universities and colleges need to address this head on and adapt, offering more non-traditional forms of education. This is because the demographic of college students is changing in a big way, such as more full-time working parents, older unemployed adults, and students in other countries wanting an American degree but not having to come to the United States to earn one.

As a private, not-for-profit university in the middle of America, Upper Iowa University is thriving in this economy. It is in the best financial shape it's ever been with record enrollment, particularly with its online program, in which U.S. military students are also benefitting from locations such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Enrollment at Upper Iowa's international centers in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore has also increased.

Moreover, those institutions that are behind in offering online course programs are losing out on a lot of opportunity. This is the fastest growing area at Upper Iowa University, as more adults are going back to school to become more marketable or retool for a new career in this economy.

Since my father was in the military, I spent half of my life before the age of 18 oversees.
I grew up in Germany, Turkey, and Italy and consider myself a global citizen and was a non-traditional student for 16 years. Therefore, I know firsthand how necessary a non-traditional higher education is for so many individuals and the wealth of opportunities that exist for higher education institutions to grow abroad.

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By Daniel de Vise  |  May 21, 2010; 5:03 PM ET
Categories:  Administration , Facilities , Finance , Online , Pedagogy , Technology  | Tags: Upper Iowa University, distance learning, online education  
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Visionary thought piece. Higher edu institution leaders may not need to jump on it right away but at least they could start to think about it... I would if I were...

Posted by: knowledgenotebook | May 24, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

As someone who lives in Fayette, I want to add that it has been interesting to watch the impact on this community of what Upper Iowa University is doing. As it grows with its centers and international locations, it actually strengthens the campus here. We see more students on campus and in town, and we see more international students here than ever before. With the increase in students, the university has been able to put more resources into campus and into our town as well. There are three new buildings going up on campus and, for a couple of years, the university has given money to businesses who want to improve their building in Fayette or build a new business. We already have one brand new business in town, and another new building is going up right now. From what we can see in town, Upper Iowa University must be successful with its approach to education.

Posted by: GHH-IA | May 26, 2010 6:35 PM | Report abuse

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