Academia at a Crossroads
Every industry has cycles, and higher education isn’t immune. New threats have accelerated change—and today we face a rapidly changing educational landscape. Some of these are driven by fundamental changes in education and technology, whereas others are driven by major world events, such as COVID-19. Among the many factors, higher education is expected to prepare students for careers that will likely involve multiple positions in varying disciplines over several years. The incoming high school population is savvy regarding the costs and potential returns of education, placing demands on higher education to deliver those returns. Over the last several decades there has been substantial growth in tuition and room and board costs, which many are unwilling or unable to pay. As a consequence of these and other influences, higher education is under pressure, as evidenced by the closing and restructuring of institutions across the country. In the last four years, 92 nonprofit colleges and universities have either closed or merged, and more than 100 for-profit institutions are no longer in operation. Institutions of all sizes and types—from small liberal arts campuses to state universities—have been impacted. COVID-19 has resulted in suspension of on-campus activities at many institutions, and potential changes in tuition and room and board cost structures are significantly impacting the financial health of many colleges and universities.
Innovation and Entrepreneurship (I&E) education has the potential to create greater value for students as it better connects the academic discipline to career success. This value proposition is important for colleges and universities to offer to prospective students and their parents as they decide where, or whether, to enroll and may be an important factor in recruiting and retaining students, which can help sustain the financial health of the institution.
There are also international pressures. Academic institutions are depending on recruiting students from new markets, and international economic competition is driving education in other countries to improve and adapt as these nations strive to achieve economic success. Recent worldwide medical crises point to the potential reduction in the pool of foreign students and apply greater pressure on other nations to become more economically independent. Sustaining economic competitiveness for the United States and remaining at the forefront of undergraduate and graduate education demand that education here adapt to better prepare students for these new challenges. And, of course, the students benefit as well from this preparation.
Demonstrating value and adapting to the new demands that education must meet are critical to the success of academic institutions. Indeed, the same can be said for individual departments and disciplines, including physics, as each must draw a substantial audience to justify its continued operation within an institution. Although various I&E—focused disciplines, institutions, and initiatives have been launched worldwide, physics is uniquely positioned to become a leader in the transformation of student development and preparation for the future. Physicists are at the core of the development of new and fundamental technologies and have broad understanding and capability, allowing them to create, manage, and oversee complex science and technology projects.