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Higher Education is Indeed a Business, the Business of Student Transformation

When I first became a higher education professional, I remember being told that higher education was not a business. It was a public good, and as such, we don’t serve customers. Instead, we serve learners. Now more than ever, I reflect on that perspective and ask if it is relevant to society’s emerging realities and today’s public perceptions and expectations for higher education.

Dr. Mordecai Ian BrownleeDr. Mordecai Ian BrownleeAccording to researchers Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, almost all of today’s noteworthy U.S. universities and colleges were founded before 1900. This demographic and economic boom period in the country created the foundation on which academia rests today and, in many ways, is still seeking to recapture. Except there’s one major problem…statistically, it can’t. For one, America is aging rapidly. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2040, the number of Americans age 65 and older is projected to more than double, reaching 80 million. By 2054, that number is expected to increase to 84 million, making up an estimated 23% of the population. Paired with Americans' confidence in higher education falling to 36%, according to a recent Gallup Poll, higher education institutions are not only dealing with declining traditional student populations but reduced trust in the market – but that’s not all.

Without the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, institutions nationwide would have crumbled or failed to receive critical investments toward institutional sustainability. As the 2025 fiscal year is fast approaching, the looming question is, what institutions will survive without these financial lifelines? I believe the answer lies in institutions' willingness to make the necessary changes to ensure the relevance of their institutional mission and student experiences to remain relevant in today’s marketplace. Furthermore, I believe that state funding models must be adequately assessed and re-designed to properly fund and ensure a viable future for tomorrow’s youth and working adults to have the educational systems present to address the country’s workforce needs – if higher education is indeed a public good.

Too often, I hear conversations debating the importance of liberal arts education compared to the value of workforce development. Truth be told, they are both equally important and critical to addressing America’s workforce shortage. As of May 2024, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reported that the U.S. has 8.5 million job openings but only 6.5 million unemployed workers—there aren’t enough people to fill the jobs. Combined with the reality that the U.S. household debt reached an all-time high of $17.987 trillion in the first quarter of 2024, higher education must reposition itself to serve the evolving needs of the people and its country. The advancement of social and economic mobility must be at the forefront of the minds of educators. America needs the skills, tools, and infrastructure to dig itself out of the realities it has created for itself and its people.

In closing, far less time should be spent debating and fighting to recapture what higher education once was, and more efforts and resources need to be invested in what it must become. Higher education is indeed a business, the business of student transformation. However, it is time to put our business affairs in order.

Dr. Mordecai Ian Brownlee is president of the Community College of Aurora in Colorado. 

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