What will higher education look like in 15 years?

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Imagine a Rip Van Winkle of the last days falling asleep in 1957 and waking up (like the original Rip) 20 years later. Her now elderly friends were telling incredible stories: of sit-ins, teaching, love, campus protests, urban uprisings, sexual revolution, calls for Black Power, feminist challenges to patriarchy, d presidential assassination, war in Southeast Asia, and the forced resignation of a president.

I suspect Rip would suspect his friends of telling stories. To all appearances, the country was largely unchanged. The two-party system was still intact, racial inequalities were still pronounced, the Middle East was still struggling.

Over time, our Rip would find that the country had fundamentally changed, but not quite in the way his friends suggested. The American population had become much more diverse; working mothers and single parents were unimaginably acceptable in 1957; de jure segregation was now illegal, although de facto segregation persisted.

I tell this story as a preface to a question that runs through my mind: What will American higher education look like in 15 years?

Will it essentially look like today’s system, or will it be fundamentally different?

Will the future of higher education be technology driven? Virtual? Hybrid? Based on evidence? Soft? Custom? Competency-based? Results-oriented objectives?

My crystal ball is cloudy, but I can say it for sure:

  • Expect the unexpected: Another pandemic, a sharp economic downturn, a difficult political shift to the right or to the left, or anything else is likely to happen with unpredictable implications.
  • Threats to existing institutions lurk all around us: Only a few include certificates, certifications, alternative credentials, private universities, and companies with big brands could certainly shake up the higher education landscape.
  • All reforms have unintended, unintended and often undesirable consequences: even well-intentioned reforms (for example, requirements common to all public university systems) can have consequences that are difficult to anticipate in advance.

Obviously, projecting the future is a futile exercise, in part because any precise forecasting depends on political variables that are almost entirely unpredictable. It can also be misguided because this prediction can itself influence the future in ways that could be wrong.

But colleges and universities need to think a decade and a half ahead, both to be able to face emerging challenges and to chart a course for their likely future.

We know from personal experience the utter unpredictability of the future. As a colleague recently said: Who would have guessed fifteen years ago that a tweet would be anything other than a bird tweet?

That said, we need to prepare for the future, and I suspect the best approach has to resemble the Bayesian statistics I studied in college: making inferences based on our best probability estimates.

We might ask ourselves, are there any predictions that we can make with some degree of certainty? The answer, I think, is “yes”. Here are just a few:

1. The economics of a traditional college education will become even more complex than it is today.
As we all now recognize, the demographics of higher education are likely to become increasingly delicate as the number of high school graduates, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, stagnates or even declines.

Other trends may worsen the situation. As dual degree / college opportunities develop, campus business models that rely on large introductory courses will suffer.

2. Competition in the post-secondary education market is likely to intensify.
Already, alternatives to traditional college education are proliferating, even though some of the threats (like for-profit organizations or various boot camps) have gone down the drain. Competitors include fully online providers, certificate and certification programs,

3. Either way, the challenge of affordability of higher education will be met.
Remember the old saw: trends that are unsustainable will not persist indefinitely. The rising cost pressures underlying the tuition fee increases will be addressed because otherwise college education will become utterly unaffordable except for the rich or except in the better endowed institutions.

I have no idea how affordability will be approached, whether it be through loan forgiveness, free community college, income-based repayment programs, accelerated time to graduate, or graduation from more affordable short term, or whatever. But college needs to become more affordable.

4. The pressures for equity will not only persist but will intensify.
I find it hard to believe that the demand for fairness will decrease. Accountability for equity in access, entry into high-demand majors, and in outcomes, including post-graduation outcomes, is likely to deepen.

When we try to anticipate the future, we must avoid certain pitfalls.

A common trap: extrapolating from current trends. The story rarely unfolds in a linear direction. Sometimes it moves dialectically. At other times, seemingly random or unpredictable. Institutions will react to existing trends and, therefore, change these trend lines.

Another trap: to let his personal predilections or his personal interest cloud his predictions.

Many projections of the future are little more than a wish fulfillment form, or on the contrary, a reflection of our nightmares. Whenever possible, we should not allow our hopes or fears to color our predictions.

A third trap: exaggerating the influence of a particular variable.

Some of the changes that will take place in higher education will undoubtedly come from outside: driven by foundations, federal or state governments, or advanced technology innovators. Others will come from within; for example, through pressure from undergraduates or graduate and professional students.

A fourth trap: Do not take into account the possibility of an unexpected disturbance.

This disruption can be a crisis (such as a pandemic or a sharp economic downturn), a disruptive innovation that challenges existing models, or a change in public policy.

While I cannot predict the future in the near term, I can certainly identify a number of hinges on which the future may well turn.

1.The future of community colleges
Should community colleges continue to juggle their current roles – vocational training and academic programming – or should they focus more on one of these functions, namely vocational training, skills enhancement and retraining, or on academics, offering bachelor’s degrees?

2.The future of public university systems
Should individual campuses continue to operate largely as stand-alone institutions or should public university systems operate in a more coordinated and integrated fashion?

3.The future of the least selective and least resourced private colleges
Should states try to integrate small private colleges closely into their public higher education systems or should these institutions continue to operate independently?

4.The future of adult education
Despite all the talk about lifelong learning, it is not at all clear how this will be delivered or by whom. Maybe universities will dominate this sector, just as they currently control higher education, but maybe others will step in: MOOC providers or boot camps or companies like Amazon, Google and Microsoft, alone or in collaboration with college and university partners.

5.The future of the college business model
For years, futurists have predicted the demise of the great conference in person to no avail. It’s not only profitable, but, in a surprising number of cases, inspiring. But if general courses gravitate more and more to high schools, how will campuses compensate for the income generated by these courses?

6.The future of academic experience
If there’s anything the MOOC mania has taught us, it’s that colleges and universities need to double their comparative advantages: the personal relationship between faculty and students, the rich and strong after-school program, and the opportunities. learning by experience and by project.

Many of us believe that campuses need to better balance a course-centric curriculum with other types of educational experiences, especially supervised research, internships, study abroad, clinical and practical internships, and service learning. But it remains to be seen whether campuses will figure out how to adapt experiential and project-based learning.

I can’t predict the future any more than you can. But I know what those of us who value liberal education should be fighting for. We must mobilize our collective influence to put pressure on this society to:

1. Make sure that all high school graduates can attend the type of institution that will best meet their needs, with cost no longer being a barrier.

2. Make the kind of undergraduate experience that is arguably the best – liberal in-person training on a residential campus – much more widely accessible.

We also need to do more to improve student learning. It’s no secret that the main beneficiaries of our current higher education system are the most privileged institutions, the richest in resources and, yes, the full professors. We have to be honest with ourselves: in the most privileged institutions, the dominant priorities of the faculty are research and the ability to teach small classes in our area of ​​specialization.

In other words, the incentive structure of higher education is imperfectly aligned with what I believe should be one of our highest goals: undergraduate learning, workforce preparation work and the growth and maturation of students.

I’m not holding my breath, but maybe, just maybe, the next 15 years will see a shift in priorities, with an increased emphasis on mentoring, feedback, project-based learning and interaction. close between students and teachers. I certainly hope so.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.


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