Higher Education – Lovell Says Marquette is Innovating Education and Looking Ahead

As part of our series on higher education, Dr. Michael Lovell, President of Marquette University, discussed the future of higher education. (Some of the discussion from this interview came from the ideas and data presented in the book Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, by Nathan Grawe.)

The interview started with a discussion of how the President of a university sees changes coming in higher education. Dr. Lovell said, “This change in higher ed, you can see it coming. We’ve been talking about it here at Marquette for four or five years…For the first time in our history, people started to question whether higher ed was even worth it anymore. That put a tremendous amount of pressure on higher ed to transform itself. You had students graduating with debt, and people calling it a national crisis. You had a lot of articles about students that were graduating that didn’t have skills needed for the jobs of the future. You had pressure because of smaller enrollments, particularly in the Midwest and Northeast. There’s tremendous competition for students…You can see all these things.  We call them headwinds. We use the phrase, ‘Think Different, Act Different’…I think the tipping point is Grawe’s book, showing we are facing a cliff in 2026.”

After explaining the headwinds facing higher education, Lovell went on to explain some of the steps Marquette has taken to address the needs of students and universities going forward.  He first said the first step is to think about how the university is educating students, highlighting how quickly technology is changing. He said, “Technology and data is moving so fast today that what a student learns in their freshman year of college, 50% of it will be obsolete by their junior year.”  Lovell said higher education needs to address what he sees as an uncertain future of jobs, explaining that as technology continues to grow and advance, the jobs of the future may not be what the jobs of today are.  He went on to say that means the university needs to change how they educating students, and they need to educate them for their whole life. Lovell said, “Our traditional age students are going to go down, we know that the 18-year olds by 2025 will be 25% less here in the Midwest. But I believe where the shift needs to occur in higher ed is the non-traditional students. We may actually grow if we think about the digital age of education. I’ve talked to CEOs who said their workforce needs to change, not their people, but their workforce. I’ve talked with one manufacturer who said they need their workforce to be more technology savvy in program software and data analytics. Where traditionally they didn’t need that.  The manufacturer said 10% of their income, for the first time, needs to be around software and apps. Things they had never even been part of before, and his workforce didn’t have the skills to do that. So then, how can universities play a role in helping in re-educate existing employees that are in the workforce?”

Technology is changing quickly, and Lovell emphasized several times that it is important to stay up on technology and advancements for students entering the workforce, so when asked how he helps stay up to date he said Marquette development the Office of Economic Engagement. The role of the Office is to partner with corporations to bring technology and education into the classroom that is relevant to real world applications.  Lovell explained that he believes the classroom of the future is going to be about bringing real world problems into the classroom.  He described how students today have instant access to information through their phones and computers, but the classroom needs to be about bringing their ability to use that instant access information into real world applications. He highlighted that bringing teaching faculty and corporations together brings the real-world opportunities to the classroom.  Lovell said since the students have access to instant information, it becomes more important to bring the skills that a liberal arts program and humanities disciplines can offer; creative problem solving, working in teams, innovation, as part of a background of strong ethics and moral decision making.  

When asked how Marquette is working with corporations to innovate opportunities at Marquette, Lovell said, “Over the last three years, we have done more and more.  We have a record number of courses online.  We have a record number of students taking online courses…One of the great things we did two years ago was offer an undergraduate degree in data science. Three years ago last November I was meeting with CEOs. I was asking what we were doing well, what we could do better, and what needs they see.  Each one of them said in that meeting, we need employees that have data analytics and data science skills.  They can’t get enough of them.  So, I met with our dean of Arts & Sciences and asked if we could do anything around data science and data analytics. They had been talking about it.  I was very proud that was in November three years ago, and within eight months we actually launched an undergraduate degree in data science.  Since then there have been a bunch of branches that have gone off from there.  Now we have health care analytics and business analytics. These are certificates that people can get from the data science department…This is an example of how someone can get a business degree and come back and take a certificate in analytics.” 

Lovell then touched on the Northwestern Mutual Data Science Institute, done as a partnership between Marquette University, UW-Milwaukee and Northwestern Mutual. He said, “The Data Science Institute is housed at Northwestern Mutual. So, our students and faculty are exposed to the problems and challenges are Northwestern Mutual in data.  For Northwestern Mutual the goal is to create an ecosystem around technology that will not only help the workforce, but hopefully draw other people in from other parts of the country that want to be a part of this ecosystem.”

Marquette believes that as a Jesuit school, one of the things they offer is the discussion of ethics around big data.  “Every year we have a symposium in ethics and big data, where we invite people from around the country,” Lovell added.

When asked about the 60Forward program, Lovell said the target market from some of the innovation in higher education is bringing back people who have some college, but never finished their degree. Lovell said Marquette isn’t striving to have 100,000 students online, but instead Marquette’s goal is to help individuals in Wisconsin to complete their degree. Lovell said, “We are targeting some very specific individuals.  For example, we have our first undergraduate degrees online in Strategic Communications. We are going to continually add programs where there is demand, and we know that we have expertise.  We aren’t going to be everything for everyone, but we’re going to be focused on things that we are strong at…We offer a fully online MBA.”  Additionally, Marquette added a hybrid nursing program in Pleasant Prairie.  The program allows individuals who have a bachelor’s degree in a different area but want to become a nurse to have a faster time to completion through a part online, part on-campus program.  Lovell said it is one of the fastest growing areas.

Lovell was asked to talk about how Marquette is integrating students into real-world work to help them learn skills that will prepare them for work beyond graduation.  He said, “Our engineering school was one of the first engineering schools in the country to offer coops. We certainly have a very long history. What our business school did a few years ago which was very important was they actually moved some of their core required courses down to the freshman year with the sole purpose of getting them out of the way so the students could do their internships starting their sophomore years…The Economic Engagement Office, one of their main purposes is to provide more internships and coops for our students, and actually connect them to businesses. They are making that a uniform process regardless of where they are at.  There is no shortage of companies that want to offer these.  I was meeting with a CEO this week who wanted to guarantee 25 internships for our students next summer.”  Lovell commented that the CEOs he meets with like to work with Marquette because while those companies are able to bring in students from other parts of the nation, bringing on students from Marquette means the students are more than likely going to stay in the area after graduation. (According to Marquette’s 2019 Graduating Senior Survey, 75% of undergraduate students participate in an internship of some kind – coops, student teaching, practicums, field placements, and clinical placements.)

When asked what he thought was the biggest challenge was facing higher education at this time, Lovell said, “The financial model for higher education is broken.” He discussed how schools are struggling to stay open, and some are taking “desperate actions” to get students, and that causes schools to live in a ‘turbulent’ space. Lovell discussed how changes are being made by the national organization on admissions allowing colleges to contact students after the May 1 date to offer packages and incentives. Lovell said recruiting students can be like the ‘wild, wild west’ where colleges are offering things on the front end of the admissions process to entice students to come to their campus. He said he believes that the digital age will drive down the cost of education.  Additionally, Lovell said over the next 25 years there will be a lot of schools that no longer exist, and some that merge. Lovell said higher education in the next generation will be different than it is today, but he said he believes “it will also be meeting the needs of students and their families in a way that’s more cost effective.” (“Expert predicts 25% of colleges will “fail” in the next 20 years.”)

Lovell said that while this is a very challenging time in higher education, he also sees it as an exciting opportunity. He is committed to the “Think Different, Act Different” concept and he wants to empower the campus to define what Marquette becomes in the future.  He said that after the November 11 symposium, the campus created an idea portal to allow people to submit their ideas online called the Ideas Portal. They have since received over 1400 ideas generated. He said, “They all know what we are facing.  I don’t want them to be scared, I want them to be excited about what the future could hold for us, and how we could be looked at as a thought leader for the country if we do this in the right way.”  

Lovell concluded the interview by talking about the class he is teaching, “I have been out of the classroom for nine years, and I taught again this semester.  I teach a class called “Product Realization.”  I get a corporation that provides a team of students ideas for a new product. Over the course of the semester the students develop a prototype of a product for the company. What the class is really about is teaching the students the innovation process. I used to do research on this back in the early 2000s. The course is really geared towards having the students do certain activities so they understand how to come up with creative solutions for problems. This comes back to the things we discussed earlier.  I think these are the types of courses, where you have corporate entities bringing in the ideas and challenges.  The corporations come to class every 3-4 weeks to interact with the students.  The students are learning by doing something real.”