‘Tis the season for retrospectives. Today I’m marveling at how higher education has changed since I came to Maine some 20 years ago. The world of 1994 has disappeared.

Here’s an example. In 1994, if we met someone walking down the street talking out loud and looking down at their hand instead of greeting passers-by or watching the traffic, we would have crossed to the other side. Now, they’re probably talking on a cellphone or texting a friend.

True confession: I still have to stop myself from reacting badly to people talking to themselves and wearing little antennas coming out of their heads. You know, my family used to dress up in funny hats to amuse each other on long road trips, in the privacy of our own car, and now everyone’s doing it in public.

Formerly weird behavior is just a symptom of a bigger change in social structures, business and industrial operations, as well as educational methods and expectations. We can be connected all the time; we need to have an answer now. We have new words like Google and Facebook, plus new activities and social norms to go with them.

When little children swipe their fingers down book pages to “make” the story move along, we are in a different world.

So what does this mean for higher education? Paradoxically, if it were only a matter of adapting to technology, we’d have no problem. Campus-based institutions all have wireless Internet, every one of them has a website configured for your very own mobile device, and all who want to offer them have online programs or will have more soon. Instructional methods, in actual classrooms or online, have changed greatly as well.

However, there are many more intangible social changes, harder for higher education institutions to adapt to. In the last 20 years, the opinion climate within which higher education exists has changed dramatically. No longer is it taken for granted that college is worth the money and worth the time, and that it can deliver on expectations. Used to be, the four-year college degree was the norm in people’s minds. Used to be, you could just go to college and “find yourself,” then get a job that paid well and that launched you on your career. Used to be, college loans were smaller and college debt was not a national concern. Used to be, colleges were trusted to put out well-prepared graduates.

No more. Getting a full picture of how this came about would be the subject of a book, not a single column.

Just one example: Tuition costs too much. Yes, the cost of tuition has risen a lot faster than inflation, but the changing social context matters, too. Middle-class incomes have stagnated and the job market has changed so much that recent graduates in many fields have a hard time finding jobs.

I am not saying that higher education is OK as it is today. It isn’t. The changes we need, however, must recognize the way we live now. It’s starting to happen. Higher education in the United States has become a lot more varied in the last 20 years. In Maine, we now have familiar Maine colleges and out-of-state universities with new physical locations, and a whole fleet of online degrees offered by the college next door all the way to international universities. In other states, it’s the same story.

Increasing variety is part of change, but it’s not enough. Innovation is needed. Different timetables and different modes of teaching are only the start. How much does the basic framework of assumptions that college is based on — physical location, semesters, discrete courses, a certain number of courses in a prescribed format for a degree, faculty with the qualifications and schedules — have to stay the same? How could we deliver a fruitful set of active learning experiences that would be worth it, given new ways of organizing society and what that society needs? Some sectors of higher education are experimenting with these assumptions. More innovation is needed.

My prediction for 2015: Change in higher education will accelerate, especially here in Maine. There will be institutions featuring student engagement and active partnering with their communities, others seeking new markets, and still others reworking instructional models, funding models and basic organizational frameworks. Government, charitable foundations, business, parents and students will all continue to voice their interests and contribute ideas. It will be an exciting and creative time.

Meanwhile, could we take off the funny hats until New Year’s Eve?

Theodora J. Kalikow is vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Maine System and president emerita of University of Maine at Farmington. She can be reached at [email protected]

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