UA's Bobbitt: Traditional University Model Out of Date

New University of Arkansas System President Don Bobbitt promised a proactive administration on Tuesday, telling Little Rock Rotarians that the traditional agrarian calendar, lecture system and tuition models used by most institutions of higher learning are out of date.

Bobbitt suggested that changes are necessary in the way U.S. colleges and universities do business if the country intends to remain a world leader.

"We're operating under the same university structure as Oxford and Cambridge did 1,000 years ago," he said. "We haven't changed much since then. Is that structure really appropriate today?"

Bobbitt said technology may provide a vehicle to solve some of the problems facing higher education today. In America, one of those problems is educating the workforce, he said, and making higher education more available online could help. 

"We can't afford to lose in this endeavor because society needs an educated workforce," he said.

Bobbitt said he didn't think it was necessary for everyone to have a college degree, but believes everyone can benefit from a college education, whether it results in a technical, associate or four-year degree.

The number of Americans with some sort of college degree hovers around 40 percent. That lags behind other countries such as Canada and Japan, where that percentage is in the mid-50s, and South Korea, where almost 65 percent of the population holds a college degree.

America accounts for about 25 percent of the global economy. Bobbitt cited U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates showing that percentage dropping to 11 percent by the year 2050.

"The rest of the world is catching up," he said. "This is the landscape in which we must compete."

Bobbitt said the U.S. system of higher education remains the envy of the world, "very dynamic and open to everyone," and that American research institutions have given the world many beneficial things: Google, lasers, FM radio, MRI, GPS, bar codes, nanotechnology, discovery of the insulin gene, modern weather forecasting -- even Gatorade.

To keep the innovation flowing, American universities must adapt and become more flexible, Bobbitt said. He likes the idea of traditional universities making more courses available online as a way to make education more accessible and affordable.

Bobbitt noted that there's a reason why the online University of Phoenix can afford to advertise in venues such as Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and buy stadium naming rights, as it did in Glendale, Ariz., for the venue used by the NFL's Arizona Cardinals. Providing more online options would enable colleges and universities to enroll more students, offer more options and even adjust their pricing model, Bobbitt said.

The current tuition model essentially charges the same amount for all courses, he said. "Would that work in the business community?" 

Of course, Bobbitt remains a champion of the on-campus experience and cited a study that supports it. The study of incoming Rice University freshmen found that 15 percent of the targeted students came from the school's home county in Texas. The same study revealed that 33 percent of Rice graduates remained to live and work in the school's actual ZIP code. 

"If you attract bright, creative folks, they are likely to stay," he said.

Student demographics are changing, Bobbitt said, and schools must adapt to them.

"Should we nibble around the edges, or think of a new model," he asked. "There's a lot of room to change the business models in academics."

Bobbitt said he would join a group of university leaders to meet Friday with President Obama and lobby against a proposed reduction in the number of Pell grants awarded. The U.S. Department of Education is considering reducing the number by 8 percent. An option, favored by Bobbitt and others, would be to cut the amount of each award by 8 percent. Bobbitt said that would at least get many students in the door.

Bobbitt is the former provost at the University of Texas at Arlington. He was selected last year to replace the retiring Alan Sugg. Originally from Pennsylvania, Bobbitt received his bachelor's degree in chemistry from the UA, where he eventually returned to teach, and his doctorate from Iowa State University.