Comments about the fate of higher education are a lot like opinions about parenting. Everyone is an expert, whether they have children or not, and everyone feels qualified to offer advice, solutions, commentary and critique—often quite publicly. Much of the tension in higher education comes from unanswered questions about who we are and who we need to be in the 21st century. We cannot hope to represent ourselves until we have done our own work. Thus we must reflexively engage in the processes necessary to  work toward change. And change we must.

I once had a colleague who said she liked working at a university because change, when it came, was slow, well considered, managed by committee action and driven by consensus. Rapid change, she felt, was anathema to higher education. She is not alone in this sentiment. Colleges and universities are full of faculty, staff and administrators who support this perspective, who uphold the educational traditions, delivery styles, academic subjects, and governance structures that have existed for centuries.

However, colleges and universities are also facing some of the biggest challenges they have ever faced. Public confidence is low with regard to the merit, utility and investment of a traditional 4-year liberal arts education. Industry is frustrated by a college-educated work force that cannot perform basic tasks and functions. And diminishing financial support of public institutions is slowly suffocating once vibrant programs and de-incentivizing growth.

Perhaps most striking, the educational landscape is littered by small liberal arts colleges who simply cannot, in a crowded landscape, compete. These are institutions that cannot divest themselves of structures that would allow them the fluidity and relevance required in the 21st century largely because they cannot agree upon or articulate what that relevance is.  Whether she knew it or not, my colleague’s words are the epitaph of many higher education institutions in America that eschew the kind of change required to flourish in the 21st century.

Rick Beyer, Managing Partner of Miles Howland Educational Partners confirms this perspective when he stated in a recent interview in Forbes, “There is more risk to doing nothing and staying rigid than there is in addressing alternatives regarding how colleges offer, support and deliver learning.”

So what is the purpose of higher education in the 21st century? How and why do we change? How fast must we change? What conversations must we have to facilitate change? Who decides what changes and how much? What are the consequences for not changing? Let’s take a look together.