Is the Future of Higher Ed Online, or on Campus? Interview with Peter Stokes, Managing Director of Huron
Picture a big, beautiful college campus: Dorms dotting the landscape, students rushing across the quad. Tools and technology that help enhance classroom instruction — not replace it. These are probably the main aspects of what you think of when you consider a traditional college experience.
But it’s 2017. Although those ideas of what a college experience should be like are still alive and well in some schools in the United States, they are no longer the only options for those seeking higher education. With the rise of online schooling and other hybrid, unconventional forms of higher ed, the college experience has changed immensely. To capture a snapshot of this evolution, we had Jake Murray from Boston University’s School of Education sit down with Peter Stokes, the Managing Director of Huron, a consulting group that advises higher ed leaders, amongst others.
Peter has worked in most facets of higher ed — not only does he currently work for Huron, but he has also held an administrator position at Northeastern University and has worked in other parts on the business side of education.
Listen in to hear Peter’s insights on how the campus experience may or may not change and how universities can adapt to the ever-changing edtech climate.
Jake Murray: Hi, this is Jake Murray from the Boston University School of Education. Today I’ll be interviewing Peter Stokes, Managing Director for the Huron Consulting Group for EdTech Times.
Peter, thank you for joining me. [00:10]
Peter Stokes: My pleasure. Thanks very much.
Jake Murray: Peter, can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and the Huron Consulting Group?
Peter Stokes: Huron is a large, diversified management consulting firm with large practices in areas like healthcare and higher education. In the higher education sector, we work with about 350 colleges and universities across the country annually. We’ve had about 450 consultants in our higher ed practice, and so we’ve got a very diverse and broad team with a lot of depth.
In terms of my own personal background, I began my career a little over 20 years ago as an academic, but then moved over to the business side of higher education, where I’ve spent most of the last 20 years. I also spent some time as a university administrator; I worked as vice president for global strategy and business development at Northeastern University, but have spent most of my career on the consulting side of higher education. I’ve been at Huron for about two and a half years.
Jake Murray: Great. So you’ve done the full range of roles and have a great amount of experience in higher ed.
Peter Stokes: I like to think so.
Jake Murray: From faculty to administrator. So today, we wanted to focus on how higher ed is changing — and specifically, this challenge that our higher ed institutions are facing around emerging education technology and the future of learning, and how learning is happening now. So if you could just start by talking from your experiences with working with your consultants — what you’re seeing in terms of how higher ed is adapting and going to have to change, based on education technology. [1:46]
Peter Stokes: Well there are lots of different ways in which technology is impacting in educational experience. So let’s see if we can take a look at them one by one. If we just think about where we’re sitting right now — so we’re in a city, here in Boston, looking out at the skyline. If you’re an urban university, the chances are there’s very little footprint for you to add to your campus. It’s difficult for institutions to grow when they’re in an urban setting. And so technology is one way that institutions can start to think about expanding their capacity. Over the last two decades, we’ve seen significant growth in the number of online learners. Many of the institutions providing access to online education are urban institutions. But equally, we also see institutions that are rurally situated, where students have to sometimes travel a great distance in order to get to campus — will prefer to study online. And so we’ve seen growth in online learning in these rural settings as well. So the relationship between place and reach has evolved considerably over the last several decades.
For some institutions, there has been, I think, an assumption that eventually place won’t matter at all and that in the virtual world, place is not so significant, a barrier, or an issue. Virtual presence can do away with concerns about the campus.
On the other hand, we do see some very forward-thinking institutions like MIT, who are explicitly thinking about the ways in which education technology can not only expand reach globally, but can also inform the experience on campus and the role of place and space — classroom space in the educational process. So I don’t think there are any simplistic conclusions we should draw from the potential for technology to extend reach. We should also continue to be thinking about how to use space in the classroom and how to use the place of the institution — or its places, if it’s located in more than one location — to deliver value and to extend its reach.
Jake Murray: So Bill Gates famously said that play spaced-education is going to be over in a decade. And that may have been five years ago, so maybe it’s going to happen in five years — I doubt that. But you’re not seeing that? The physical campus is still very much alive and well, and places like MIT are thinking about the transformation of campus and integration of education technology to revitalize the campus setting.
Peter Stokes: I mean, out of 20 million students in US higher education, only about 15 percent are fully online. So that leaves 85 percent who are having some kind of either fully-campus experience or some kind of hybrid campus and online. So there’s no question that the campus experience is still critical.
One of the other ways, though, that we need to think in a nuanced way about these questions is: For what sorts of audiences is the campus experience most critical? And if we think about the continuum of higher education audiences from let’s say, pre-college audiences to traditional-aged college students, say 18-24, and then if we start thinking about the 25+ group, whether they’re full-time grad students, part-time grad students, adult learners coming back for personal enrichment, or other forms of continuing or professional education — all of these different audiences have different sorts of needs and decision criteria when they think about selecting an institution. For some of them, having a campus experience is critical — for others, having a campus experience is absolutely an obstacle.
Jake Murray: They’re working. They’ve got children.
Peter Stokes: So we need to think about which audiences we’re talking about. But large institutions that serve all of these different sorts of audiences face special challenges, because they need to deliver their educational programs and services in all of these different ways. [6:30]
Jake Murray: Do you see this playing out differently? This challenge based on the type of institution — so MIT is one example of small privates that are dealing with a (?) challenges. Across the landscape of higher ed in different settings, do you see this challenge playing out differently?
Peter Stokes: Yes. So if we think about the history of higher education in the United States — and education, even more broadly — education is a local matter. The first education laws in the United States were here in Massachusetts. And when you had towns of a certain size, you were required to build a school. And so education is a local matter if we think about the post-World War II expansion of higher education, and particularly, the proliferation of community colleges, which are also geographically situated based on population ratios. Then we start with the idea that campuses are designed to be accessible regionally. And for many institutions, it still works that way; whether we’re talking about two-year schools or we’re talking about regional four-year campuses and any state system we might mention. They tend to draw students from the local area.
If we think about those institutions that are really competing for students nationally or internationally, we’re talking most about a couple hundred institutions. It’s not a large segment of the overall higher ed population, so for a big part of the iceberg, it’s still business as usual, and still very much a local business. But, with the advent of online learning as being one instance of technology impacting higher education, there’s more national-level competition. There’s even more intense competition within local regions. And of course, the other end of the spectrum — there’s greater international competition, too. So it’s not affecting all types of institutions equally, but it is an issue that virtually all sorts of institutions need to take into account when they think about: Who are they serving? Is that market likely to grow or shrink? How is the competitive landscape changing? And how should we be planning for the future? [8:52]
Jake Murray: The growth of online learning and the advance in education technology that makes that learning of greater depth, richness, and quality is allowing institutions to emerge such as Southern New Hampshire, Western Governors University — that are growing at a large scale. I think Western Governors University is serving 30,000 or 40,000 nationally, now. Are those players making a big impact in the market, and how will they change the landscape in terms of some smaller institutions?
Peter Stokes: Well, so the history of online higher education, if we go back a little over 20 years ago — I was teaching online 25 years ago, before we had course management systems, and things were done in a very crude fashion of email and message boards and that sort of thing. But we had online learning for a good two decades plus. If you think about where the early growth occurred, it disproportionately occurred in the for-profit side of the market. So things like the University of Phoenix, DeVry, Cappella, etc. The for-profits were early leaders in expanding the market for online higher education. There’s some argument that these institutions actually expanded the market for higher education itself, and that they opened up their doors to students that were not otherwise being served by the then-traditional higher education infrastructure and systems. Whether that’s a million additional students or half a million additional students, you can sort of debate. But there’s some evidence that clearly this new mode of delivery dominated by this particular set of institutions — particularly in the 1990s and the first decade of this century, really created some opportunity and some additional capacity. So they were leaders in that category.
Where you saw the effect on traditional higher education — non-profit higher education — was really on the marketing strategies and customer service strategies of those institutions. And so if we look at the offices of continuing and professional education at schools like: Harvard, with Harvard Extension; or BU, with Metropolitan College; or Northeastern, with its College of Professional Studies, all of these large research universities have arms that serve part-time adult students. Those kinds of divisions of universities paid a lot of attention to what was going on in online, and they were also side-by-side with the for-profits — really growing the online market — and they were looking at the lessons that could be derived from seeing how these for-profits operate in terms of recruiting and student service. So, in that respect, those institutions had a significant impact on how traditional higher education thinks about competition, how it thinks about growth, and how it thinks about the evolution of student services.
Now, that’s a general comment about the last few decades. If we look at more recent time, there were some hearings in Congress a few years ago looking at the enrollment practices of some for-profit institutions. Many of these institutions were engaged in practices that were thought to be not consumer-friendly, and as a result, some of these institutions have gone out of business. And their enrollment, as a class of institutions, has declined significantly. For those for-profits that were publicly traded, their share value has declined just as significantly. And so the era of for-profit institutions really leading the advancement of educational technology has, in some respects, passed. And the baton has been passed back to traditional institutions who are keeping an eye, staying competitive, adopting some of the practices, but not some of these predatory practices. [13:25]
Jake Murray: And are growing rapidly — Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire, College for America. But let’s switch to the perspective of the student. Is this good for students; in terms of accessibility, in terms of cost? So College for America says it’s 3,000 dollars a year to take a course. Or when Western Governors University says it’s 8,000 dollars; we can deliver it so much more efficiently, we can deliver to you wherever you are. Is this good for students?
Peter Stokes: So the answer depends on which students we’re talking about. We do have a very diversified higher education environment in the U.S. with four-year schools, community colleges, professional schools, specialty institutions, and all sorts. We also now see a different set of entrance, serving what we might think of as traditional higher education populations. So when you think about some of those price points for say, College for America, which is a Southern New Hampshire University division — which is providing competency-based education largely through the sale of educational services into companies. So that’s not traditional higher education marketing, that’s going to companies and asking them: Can we market these programs inside your business to help elevate the professional development of your staff? That’s one kind of student.
If we look at what’s going on in the code academy environment as another example of an alternative provider, you have 12-week programs that teach students computer programming, whatever language it may be, and they’ll do it for 15 to 20,000 dollars a year. Alternatively, students can go to a Northeastern or a BU and elsewhere and spend a quarter of a million dollars getting a computer science degree. Many of these graduates of the code academies have six-figure jobs within the space of a few months upon completion of the program. So students have to weigh: Well, do I want to go the traditional route and get an actual computer science degree? Or do I want to get this training that’s going to get me into the labor market faster at a lower cost?
So there are many, many more choices now, and we also see organizations like LinkedIn; which is now owned by Microsoft, and which prior to being acquired by Microsoft, purchased a training company called Lynda.com. LinkedIn is now really creating an ecosystem where you have prospective students, jobs, and in between those two things, you have this education provision or training provision in the form of Lynda.com. So there are all kinds of interesting, new providers out there that create, again, increased competition and competition from a service level perspective for traditional schools. [16:30]
Jake Murray: What do you think the argument, the valid argument, is for a Northeastern saying, “come and get a degree in computer science,” versus going these other routes that are cheaper. How is that going to be made by traditional higher eds?
Peter Stokes: Well, it does raise some potential confusion in the marketplace, as we have a proliferation of providers, proliferation of degrees, or programs, products, sometimes certificates, sometimes degrees, sometimes non-credit educational experiences. And as a result of that, there’s a great conversation going on right now about the history of credentials. Does the bachelor’s degree matter? Is the master’s the new bachelor’s degree? And yet, at the same time, you see these non-traditional providers offering things they call “badges.” And so, again, just go back to LinkedIn as an interesting counterexample to the traditional market. LinkedIn provides you a venue for building your resume in real-time, and you can curate your educational experiences there. You can post degrees and badges and other sorts of experiences that you’ve had, and that provides future employers with a chance to evaluate your skills and credentials in ways that weren’t previously available. [18:00]
Jake Murray: And that you mention employers — and they’re the other big driver. It hasn’t swung yet, but the globals, the Ernst and Young, that say, “We don’t really care about a degree,” or “A degree is not what we’re looking for. We’re looking for a certain skills set, and if you can demonstrate that.” So when more and more employers put stock in competency-based badges, or credentials, then we could really see this movement away from the higher ed traditional degrees.
Peter Stokes: That’s certainly one possibility. There’s no question that what big data can tell us about who actually succeeds post-graduation could change the way we think about higher education reputations significantly. Now there are already some rankings within LinkedIn that will show you graduates from what schools are achieving the highest job positions and salaries in that field. And in some fields, it’s really the same US News Top 20. In other niches, it’s not. And so depending upon the industry, different institutions have different levels of strength. There’s an opportunity for more specialization and more differentiation around value proposition. But there is also increased noise in the marketplace, and it requires an informed consumer to make a decision: Do I expect to get the same thing from a 12-week software development experience, versus a four-year bachelor’s degree in computer science? No.
I know that — you know that. But not necessarily every student weighing that decision knows that. And so, you know, there’s a challenge of getting folks to weigh the near-term rewards and the long-term rewards. And this gets back to the whole tension around the cost of higher education and the unquestionable fact that higher education is becoming more and more personally expensive because costs are shifting from the public to the individual. And yet, at the same time, the return investment for higher education remains extremely strong. So it’s hard to get both of those messages out there. Once everybody can see that price is increasing and the cost to the individual is increasing, and is a percentage of our overall income, more and more costs are going to education — 20:25
Jake Murray: And being leveraged with debt, which is also a rising factor of student debt.
Peter Stokes: Which can have all kinds of knock-on effects for how folks develop throughout their professional lives and personal lives. But at the same time, higher education results in an earnings premium that the absence of higher education doesn’t produce. And so it’s a complicated consumer environment at the moment. [20:25]
Jake Murray: It used to be very — you go to college, college or bust — it’s emerging that there are other pathways based on your situation, what you want to do as a career, what’s going on in your life. There might be better alternatives for you than going the traditional higher ed route. The way that the world is changing — the opportunities are changing for students.
Peter Stokes: So I did my undergraduate experience at a public university in New York state 30 years ago. At that time, across the country, most public institutions — their costs were subsidized about 80 percent by state tax dollars. Today, the average public subsidy for a state system is about 20 percent. In some cases, it’s below 10 percent. So the burden of cost has shifted from the public tax base to the private individual, and along with that, you see this proliferation of alternative forms of provision. And so consumers have more choice — they bear more of the expense, and as a consequence, the choices they make have higher risk/reward associated with it as well. So again, we have to think about whether or not these alternative modes of delivery, whether it’s online instruction, whether it’s Western Governors or Southern New Hampshire, or many, many others, or whether these emerging code academies or these sort-of just-in-time online training, are they the right products at the right time for the right student? And, you know, what I think many folks who study higher education are considering is that there is a socialization element in traditional higher education for that 18- to 22- or 24-year-old. For a certain segment of the population, which is perhaps, say, somewhere between 15 and 30 percent of the overall higher education market, that experience is still absolutely vital, and is unlikely to diminish in value in the near term. So there’s still an important role for place-based instruction and for campuses to play an important role serving communities within which they are situated.
At the same time, there are other students, as we discussed earlier, for whom coming to campus is an obstacle, and these other alternative means to access education are great benefits. In addition the traditional online higher education, you also have, in the last five years, this rise of free online education, done at massive scale MOOCs. A lot of hype around that — not yet a lot of clarity about the impact. But we do see some of the early MOOC providers, like Coursera, talking now about delivering degree programs. Not just three courses. [24:04]
Jake Murray: Right. Credentials that are connected to these courses.
Peter Stokes: Right. Credentials as well.
Jake Murray: I want to switch to the question of the physical campus. So, for some universities, there is no immediate impact or change — or particularly, research institutions that need large facilities to do a lot of their work and research. For other colleges, this could be a question about when does it make sense or does it still make sense to be developing large projects, buildings — locally, we have U-Mass Boston, which is going through a budget crisis around its expansion. What would you advise colleges around expansion or taking on large building projects, based on what we know is happening with online learning or just these other trends in learning?
Peter Stokes: I think 50 years ago, putting together a classroom and constructing a building to house classrooms was not that complicated a process. If you look at any college campus with buildings that are more than 50 years old, they don’t look very different from one another, right? So we all kind of knew what a classroom looked like. Nowadays, the expectations for classroom functionality and adaptability are very, very divergent from campus to campus, program to program, and so on. We see investment, significant investment, in laboratories of one type or another. We see certain kinds of learning spaces to support certain kinds of pedagogical models, like say, the case model in a business school, where it’s important for students to see one another. And so we have these classrooms in the round.
We see, in recent years, and emphasis on spaces for incubators or makerspaces. Other kinds of space. Certainly in the performing arts, where we’re talking about theaters or places for sculpture. There are many, many varieties of space needs for diverse sorts of higher education institutions, and the expectations for the quality of the spaces continues to rise. We aspire to give students an experience in college that will adequately prepare them for their professional lives, whether that’s in theater, engineering, medicine — whatever it may be. And that requires having space and technology and tools that are up to the standard of the professional moment. That’s expensive.
So all of this space management is very, very costly. What’s also true is that buildings are things that you can put names on, and donors are attracted to supporting the development of buildings. It’s one of the very manifest ways that a campus can express itself in terms of its growth, its prestige, and its expansion. And so it can be very, very motivating for faculty who are in an old, dilapidated building, where there are leaks in the ceiling and the space is configured all wrong, for their purpose is to suddenly walk into a new building. And they can start to dream about: “Well, what kinds of programs could we deliver here?” And so space can constrain how we think about how we deliver education, but it could also open up enormous creative potential. So space remains an expensive proposition — pedagogically very relevant proposition. And it’s flexibility is something we need to consider when we make these investments, because the investments can be very significant. And there are many schools out there that are wrestling with the problem of having sometimes very beautiful buildings that are completely inflexible and are essentially stuck in a certain pedagogical model that don’t allow them to really function in a contemporary fashion. So there’s a whole host of cost and programmatic issues around space.
One of the other things, of course, is at many of our colleges and universities, the space is only utilized for a portion of the calendar — or even portions of the day. And so one of the other key issues around space and higher education is: How do we optimize our scheduling so that we’re getting the greatest value out of the space assets that we have? And then that also gets to the question of: How do you manage the energy resources associated with these buildings and how do you make them most environmentally efficient and effective? [28:53]
Jake Murray: This question of optimizing space — will that not become an increasing challenge with learning anywhere, anytime. The place-based education, depending on the area of focus or the student — that they’re coming less and less to campus or there’s less and less to need, so using space or optimizing space could become more and more of a challenge.
Peter Stokes: Or it creates opportunities for expansion. So the way, in essence, to increase capacity, maybe twofold, even. So there are some education historians who look at the past, look at the present, and try to imagine the future and see a future where instead of a four-year residential bachelor’s degree, maybe it’s a two-year residential program with the last two years online. Or instead of a two-year master’s degree, maybe it’s one year on campus, and a year online, or some other configuration. So that you have the same number of students, but less of a demand on the physical infrastructure to serve those students, and therefore, that potentially gives you the opportunity to increase the number of students who can draw on campus-based, place-based resources.
Jake Murray: Do you have an opinion, or where do you come down on the side of students being on campus? That’s an important part of their educational experience. I’ll use U-Mass Boston as an example again. They’ve been a commuter school, and traditionally been a commuter school — they want to build dorms, they want to make a residential component. Does that make sense? Given everything we know around how education is becoming much more flexible and not necessarily place-based, but what’s the value of doing that? Of creating a residential component?
Peter Stokes: So one counterexample, which is interesting, is Minerva, which is a start-up institution, which was launched a few years ago, and set out to be an elite private institution where the coursework would be delivered online, but the students would co-habitate. So the Minerva model is a location-based student experience, but with online curriculum. And the Minerva model involves students traveling to multiple campuses, situated globally. So the students move together through these different geographic locations, but all the while have their classroom experience online.
That’s a starting-with-a-blank-slate kind of education model, and what they’re actually saying is the social experience is absolutely critical, but we don’t actually need to have classroom space. We need living space, we need other kinds of outside-the-classroom learning spaces for our students, so that they can learn together, but again, the instruction is delivered online. This is taking the notion of the flipped classroom to the extreme. If the notion of the flipped classroom is: Rather than lecture in class, you put the lecture online, and then bring students into the class and actually have a discussion. Here, we’re putting the entire curricular experience online, and yet we’re really investing in that co-location in a different way to create a different kind of value.
So in that sense, among innovators, there’s a belief that this face-to-face people component is critical. You know, from my experience, for example, at Northeastern University, where I worked for some years — Northeastern has thought very deeply about the relationship between place and reach. And so, in addition to Northeastern having a Boston-based campus, of course, its home base, it also now has a number of smaller campuses throughout North America. So one down in Charlotte, North Carolina, one in Seattle, Washington, one in Silicon Valley, and one in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. So Northeastern’s notion is: It has a portfolio of educational programs, some of that portfolio is delivered online. It can look at that portfolio and say: “Okay, well what programs in that portfolio make sense in Charlotte? What programs in that portfolio make sense in Seattle?” And then tailor those portfolios to those markets, bring the education that’s needed there that isn’t currently being well-served by other, similar sorts of institutions, and then delivering those programs in a hybrid fashion. Some face-to-face, majority online. But also, you know, looking at the opportunity to expand even face-to-face education in some of those markets. So place has a role — a very critical role, even in the expansion of online delivery. [33:46]
Jake Murray: So one last question about the campus and this issue you raise around optimizing space. Are there opportunities for higher ed institutions to make their space — their buildings — available to address community needs? And so you know of any examples of that?
Peter Stokes: Sure. I mean, many, many colleges and universities make certain buildings available to the public, and that’s part, in parcel, of the traditional town-and-gown sorts of issues for campuses that may have, let’s say, a conference center and a hotel. They’ll often make those facilities available for local weddings and for all sorts of things. Making libraries available to the local public is also very common. On the flip side, of course, we have growing concerns about campus safety. Often, not always, when there’s crime on a campus, it’s sometimes generated by folks who are not students — folks who are coming from off campus. So these boundary issues around the campus — whom to let in, how to create security — these are also highly complex issues. 35:01
Jake Murray: Do you see any kind of repurposing of buildings and spaces that say “we want to help address a housing issue, an affordable housing issue,” or “we want to creating opportunities for students with disabilities or students on the autism spectrum” — other ways to reach out and kind of make the campus a benefit to the community, if they’re seeing less and less utilization of their space?
Peter Stokes: One of the things that we do see is the emergence of the campus as a personal enrichment site. And so you’re starting to see adult communities being built by there — on or close to college campuses, with the notion that retirees can benefit from some of the facilities at campuses. Many campuses will also open up their gyms to the public. And the educational resources for a retired population represent another line of business opportunity. So you do see some housing being repurposed and opened up to different populations, to serve different sorts of needs. I think another interesting case at the moment is: So GE recently moved from Connecticut to Boston, and their campus in Connecticut is now being taken over by a university in the town where they were situated. And that can create an opportunity for a different kind of local investment to serve as an incubation space, business development space…and so on.
There’s something similar going on right now in Texas, in the Texas A&M system, as well, where you see campuses that have large plots of land and then their investors, who want to help them make good use of that space. And then they start creating investments in multi-use space, some of which might be for education delivery, some of which might be for business incubation, some of which could be for technology, etc. [37:06]
Jake Murray: Well, Peter, I want to thank you for your time and for sharing your thoughts.
Peter Stokes: My pleasure.
Jake Murray: Very insightful.
A Texan by birth but a Bostonian at heart, Hannah is an educational writer, AmeriCorps alum, and one-time StartupWeekend EDU (SWEDU) winning team member. She started her career at a Pearson-incubated edtech startup, but has since covered travel, food & culture, and even stonemasonry in addition to education.