Inside Higher Education recently published a very interesting article, “Higher Education in a World Where Students Never Graduate.” The author notes, “much has been written about the potential decline in demand for traditional one- and two-year master’s programs in favor of short-term microcredentials.” He predicts that

As these trends crystallize, and professional education becomes unbundled and more transactional, universities can compete by focusing on the uniqueness of what we really offer: the deep relationship students build with us through their interactions with faculty, advisers, peers and professional networks. We must realize that we are in the relationship business; degree and certificate programs represent only a small part of the value we offer (and the one most likely to be disrupted by competition).[There are] concrete steps for universities to foster lifelong relationships to become the central hub to which students return as their life needs change.

He discusses the radical transformation of the newspaper industry as a cautionary tale for higher education. “Fortunately,” however, “there is one fundamental difference between news and education. Whereas news is based on content, education is fundamentally a complex set of relationships that encompass content/knowledge, mentoring and community. Whereas content can be commoditized, good relationships tend to be sticky and hard to replace.” Institutions of higher education can build on deep connections with students:

A university’s strongest asset is the deep bond that we form with our students — through our faculty, guidance counselors, student activities organizations, corporate partners, career counseling consultants and alumni organizations. These relationships are built around course work, of course, but also include a substantial amount of mentoring and life coaching, as well as immersion in campus activities and peer networks. We do a reasonably good job of offering such a multifaceted life-changing experience to our undergraduate students.

The author concludes, “In a world where students never really graduate, the role of the university is to take lifelong care of them, as we would take care of our true foster children. The transformation is not going to be easy: it will involve change in the way we handle everything, from academics to career counseling and alumni relations. But it is going to both better serve 21st-century learners and, ultimately, leave our institutions stronger in the face of a potentially disruptive future.” Indeed!