Lead or Be Left Behind: Innovation in Interior Design Programs to Meet Paradigm Shifts in Higher Education

Presented by: Katherine S. Setser and Robin J. Wagner

Americans feel a college degree affords greater financial and job security in their future (Lumina Foundation and Gallup, 2013). Yet, an overwhelming majority of Americans believes that college is becoming out of reach for the middle class. Based on an Association of College Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) commissioned study, nearly three quarters of the public do not believe students get their money’s worth from their college investment (GFK, 2014). Throughout the 1980s, higher education institutions struggled to balance the need to create a wide variety of degree programs as a means to promote access to a wider populace with the need to control the dramatically rising prices associated with such an expansion. The result is an unsustainable holding pattern and even greater pressure for significant change, this time from federal and state governments as well as parents and students (Zemesky, 2013). Significant change, largely in the form of governmental oversight, is already beginning to impact the structure of higher education and its programs. 

Interior Design education is no exception. In fact, its professional and nationally accredited programs may very well be situated at the center of the debate. Professional programs  – those programs often viewed by legislative bodies and the public as highly industry- and employment-focused will perhaps face the earliest of challenges. Increased government involvement in some of the decision making that historically has been left to the accreditation process may eclipse or even conflict with traditional collegial values and practices, affecting both the scope of programs and the attention to details of the profession (Eaton, 2012).

According to Judith S. Eaton (2012), president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), a number of factors are implicated in the move toward greater governmental oversight authority:

  1. Increased federal investment. Management and tracking the significant federal funding to colleges and universities alone is the government’s justification for substantial oversight.
  2. Increased tuition. A continued and significant rise in the price of tuition to the point of outpacing the increased costs of healthcare. The 2007-2009 recession served to intensify the already existent issue of affordability. 
  3. Accountability. As society has grown to expect universal access to higher education, there is a call for increased public accountability and transparency in the form of improved evidence of student achievement and institutional performance. Previously, society valued open access to education as a prized opportunity; however, today’s more consumer-based approach to college access emphases a value-added dimension where degrees are valued only to the extent to they result in higher paying jobs.
  4. Nationalization of public policy. With greater frequency, policy determinations are being made at a federal or national level.
  5. Introduction of electronic technology. “Technology has created the expectation of instant information, hastening the eclipse of personal and institutional privacy and rendering all judgments equal – whether from informed professionals or newcomers to an area of inquiry (p. 10).” 

Other influences from within academia are driving changes to the fundamental institutional structure and the students they serve. Shifts in faculty makeup, governance, curriculum, even the role that institutions play in their communities and society effect this change (Zussman, n.d.).

This panel will include interior design program educators and administrators from both public and private institutions to discuss the impact of recent and coming changes to higher education on their own interior design programs, as well as their attempts to proactively “lead the change.” Representatives from higher education accreditation agencies will also share their insights with respect to the additional burden of regulatory oversight.


  • Eaton, J.S. (April – June 2012). The Future of Accreditation, Can the Collegial Model flourish in the Context of the Government’s Assertiveness and the Impact of Nationalization and Technology? Planning for Higher Education, volume 40, number 3. Retrieved from http://www.chea.org/pdf/
  • GfK Custom Research North America (August, 2014). OmniWeb With Knowledge Panel: College Governance. Washington, DC: American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Retrieved from http://www.goacta.org/publications/college_governance_survey
  • Lumina Foundation and Gallup  (2013). America’s Call for Higher Education Design: The 2012 Lumina Foundation Study of the American Public’s Opinion on Higher Education. Washington, DC: Gallop. Retrieved from http://www.luminafoundation.org/ publications/ Americas_Call_for_Higher_Educ
  • Zemesky, R.  (2013). Checklist for Change: Making American Higher Education a Sustainable Enterprise. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
  • Zussman, A. (n.d.). Challenges Facing Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century. Retrieved from http://www.educationanddemocracy.org/Resources/Zusman.pdf

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