Published on 2013/03/20

Fewer Institutions, Greater Specialization Likely in 50 Years

AUDIO | Fewer Institutions, Greater Specialization Likely in 50 Years
As institutions begin to collaborate on programming in 50 years’ time, it is likely their programming will become more specialized. Institutions that do not adapt to this change may cease to exist.

The following interview is with David Van Zandt, president of the New School. The New School hosted a discussion panel a few months ago where Van Zandt shared some really interesting ideas about what it will take for higher education institutions to survive and succeed in the new postsecondary marketplace. In this interview, Van Zandt expands on those ideas and explains how collaboration and other changes will impact the number of institutions in 50 years.

1. Why is it critical for higher education institutions to collaborate in the development and delivery of programming?

Well, I think if you look in the marketplace for higher education, there is a lot of duplication and redundancy across different institutions and I just think it’s a matter of survival for many places. They cannot continue to basically have the entire package all on their own; many places are way too small to do that.

I think there’s also the reality of the cost. If every institution is replicating what everyone else does, it makes it very expensive for the students. You actually see effective collaboration happening now by the fact that many students now will go, say, to a community college for a couple of years, get basic courses and then transfer into a more traditional college. You can think of that as a collaboration that the students are forcing on us as opposed to the schools doing it for themselves.

I’ve always been an advocate. There’s certain parts of what we do that we don’t have any particular distinction in, that other places do exactly as well as we do and, therefore, why should we both be offering the same thing where you’re talking about a course or service? Why not try to share and get some efficiencies from that?

2. How would this collaborative approach to programming influence the way individual institutions create and organize their courses?

Well, I think institutions will have to decide what they’re good at and how they’re going to differentiate themselves in order to attract students. So, they would probably look at areas where they don’t feel they have any competitive advantage is a place to collaborate with other schools. …

Let’s just use a very simple example: if you have a very good physics faculty and physics department that does a lot of research but, say, your sociology department is not that much different from anybody else, why not combine with a partner, with someplace nearby, to offer the basic sociology? But, at the same time, for your students, the really high-end stuff would be come out of your physics department and that’s how you distinguish yourself.

3. Looking 50 years into the future, assuming this collaborative model is adopted by institutions nationwide, how do you think the number of institutions will change?

… I’m not sure it will be driven as much by a moderate collaboration as it is just by competition and a stagnant number of students coming into the system. I think you’re going to see a smaller number of higher [education] institutions.

I think it’s probably going to hit first in the area of the four-year liberal arts or four-year traditional college kind of place. Already, many of those are suffering, in terms of loss of enrollment. Many, in order to get their enrollment, have to give much more financial aid than they did in the past. So, I could easily see consolidation there. I think it’s because those schools have gotten so expensive that … parents and students are saying, “Maybe that state alternative or the publicly-funded alternative is better. And I’m only giving up, whether it’s for two years or entirely, I’m going to give up that idyllic life that many small colleges offer in order to not go into as much debt.”

It would just shrink the numbers down … nation-wide. The only way it might not happen is if there’s an even bigger influx of  students from outside of the United States. But I’m not sure what’s going to happen because many other countries are trying to create what we do here, and they’re being very aggressive about that.

4. What kind of mix do you think there will be among those institutions in 50 years? Will they be mostly public or private, or will there be an even split?

… A lot of that depends on what governments do in terms of supporting public education.

All over the world you see a pullback from supporting public education, whether it’s from the United States, Europe. The only place where you see more investment in public education is in Asia, mostly China, and some other places. … I’m not sure the change is going to break down by public versus private, or another way to say it is: government decision is going to play a big role in what the final split is between those.

But I do think, what … you’re going to see more of [is] an emergence of a group of institutions that are trying to be low cost. It may start with places that are more online (they are already low cost) and they may try to add some things without going the full traditional route. I think what you’ll see is a range of — and these all happen in the private sector — you’ll see a range of private institutions that look different from the ones we traditionally think of that will co-exist with the more expensive institutions that we currently have.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about how the number of institutions is going to fluctuate over the next 50 years?

I think we’re still at an early stage of figuring out how to deal with all of this and we don’t know yet what kinds of new teaching methods and technologies will come about that could revolutionize this whole situation. I think there’s a general view out there today that the online is not a panacea for all of these problems, in part because online technology is still probably a lot better for the types of subjects that don’t require face-to-face interaction or discussion between students, among themselves or with faculty.

Who knows? In the future, technology may get to that point. … Whatever the technology is, that may change over time. But we just don’t know how that’s going to happen. … I think the big question in terms of numbers, kinds of an institution, is what happens and … how do we deliver or how do we conduct our teaching?

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Readers Comments

Dan Jones 2013/03/20 at 10:36 am

I think we’re going to see a lot of public universities transform into private universities, and I think a lot of them will wind up taking some of the strategies used by their CE divisions and implementing them institution-wide.

The benefit to this for institutions and society is ensuring that the needs of the workforce will always be met.

The downside is the possibility of churning out drones suited to do a particular task and unable to think creatively. It’s an interesting time for higher ed.

James Branden 2013/03/20 at 12:30 pm

I love the idea of greater collaboration between different institutions, but I don’t know that such movement would lead to a decline in the number of colleges and universities.

After all, I’m sure as institutions specialize more and more, I think institutions would collaborate and eventually merge together – but I don’t think institutions will close unless they are proven to be unable to adapt to the new marketplace

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