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Opinion: Universities must change to survive

Fritz Erickson

University enrollment declines are hitting colleges and universities with a vengeance, as noted in a recent report.

This is especially true for rural institutions across the nation where demographic changes of any kind are often felt first.

The upside to being first impacted is being first to start addressing the problems and finding solutions.

That's exactly what we’re doing at Northern Michigan University, where this month we celebrate rising enrollment numbers compared to last winter semester. Overall, enrollment is up 3%, graduate programs 15%, and online programs 24%.

Like many state and national peers, NMU saw a considerable enrollment decline over the last decade. However, over the past three years NMU has enjoyed a 22% climb in new students, which erased that 10-year deficit. This growth is tied directly to our commitment to innovation, which I believe is the key to thriving in the current higher education transformation.

From left, Ashley Bell, 13, and Natalie Bell, 14, daughters of Kyle Bell of Negaunee Township, surf the internet at their home. The Bell family uses Northern Michigan University’s expanded internet service.

Steep demographic decline in traditional college-aged students is not the only challenge facing colleges and universities. Limited state funding, changing student and parental expectations, technological advances and a generally faster moving and changing world all contribute to a new landscape for higher education. Institutions willing to reconsider the status quo are the ones that will be able to navigate the future most effectively. 

Northern Michigan University student Ashley Jackson, 20, sets up her new Lenovo Thinkpad computer at the Superior Dome in Marquette on Friday morning. One of the first universities in the country to give away computers to all of its students, NMU is now looking to expand its 4G across Michigan's Upper Peninsula to expand educational opportunities to those in rural areas. Officials have been in discussion with FCC leaders and expect an answer this fall. (photo courtesy of Justin Marietti)

NMU's willingness to look at higher education differently is serving us well. We understand we must be open to providing new academic programs through new delivery options, with new partners in new kinds of learning spaces. Everything that is currently considered “traditional” in higher education must be on the table for potential change.

Some of NMU’s most recent and impactful innovations include:

►The creation of the first medicinal plant chemistry program in the U.S. to help meet the critical need for highly trained chemists to support the alternative and holistic health industry, predicted to be valued at $211 billion by 2026.

►Development of flexible learning spaces that can be more easily redefined as programs grow and shrink, and that support high sustainability measures resulting in long-term cost savings.

►Combining traditional academic programs with career-tech options so graduates enter the market with strong theoretical, critical, and hands-on, employment skills.  For example, research biologist with automotive training who can repair a broken-down field vehicle or the alternative energies professional who has grant-writing expertise are highly sought after.

►Exploration of skills needed to navigate a world powered by virtual and augmented reality and artificial intelligence. Northern is developing its own VR educational content for courses, meaning education majors can practice dynamic classroom interactions before student teaching and a working parent can train for a welding degree at their kitchen table in the evenings. 

►Building the Educational Access Network in the U.P. so students, Pre-K through lifelong learner, have access to the 21st century’s most critical learning tool, the Internet. 

These are not typical actions of a traditional university, but they are decisions that are serving our students, the region and the state well, while also helping NMU battle enrollment challenges. 

Change can be difficult for organizations, but today’s higher education transformation will not reward those institutions that hold on too tightly to the status quo. In order to be a higher ed leader now, an institution must embrace innovation in ways that open doors to intriguing new learning opportunities. These changes may be somewhat painful for our institutions to make, but ultimately, they will greatly benefit students.

Dr. Fritz Erickson is president of Northern Michigan University.