Cause For Hope Despite Today’s Perceived Higher Ed “Crisis”
What is the future of higher education? While the answers vary, the general tone of the present discussion could be characterized as negative. The word “crisis” appears frequently. Critics are unhappy with the present state of higher education and not hopeful about where things are headed. Higher ed insiders reluctantly—and at times defensively—enter the debate to express concern over the negative impact of outside pressures and what they see as an increased market mentality and a dilution of the mission of higher ed. Insiders and outsiders worry for different reasons. Though there are very legitimate concerns, many of the fears are overstated. Once higher education gets through the current period of flux, it can emerge improved and more responsive to evolving needs of society.
One of the shared concerns is that our concept of college, the nexus of higher education, is being shaken. There have even been premature obituaries in the press. College is traditionally defined as a physical space where young adults go for a set period of time (four years) at a specific age (18). Followed by a job in their chosen area, college is supposed to fill the gap between high school and the “real world.” The fact that a large percentage of the population does not currently experience college in this way—for example: commuters, part time students, community college students and adult students—is often lost on those most vocal in the debate. The reality is students aged 18 to 22 are now in the minority, outnumbered by the non-traditional or post-traditional students who constitute the new majority on college campuses. The dominant but narrow definitions of traditional students and the traditional college limit our dialogue about the future of higher education.
There will be colleges in the future that look pretty much like they did yesterday and do today. The history of higher education illustrates a strong homogenization of colleges through emulation of elite institutions. Decades of limited external competition helped perpetuate the uniformity. There may be fewer of these institutions, but this familiar model of physically present full-time faculty, a predefined curriculum, real classrooms, and dorms will survive as a very viable option for future generations. This is reassuring but hardly newsworthy. What is new and significant however, is the emergence of an increasing variety of alternative and innovative models of postsecondary education that fall outside of this longstanding preconception of college. This is unsettling for many, though it does not have to be. The traditional model will be supplemented but not supplanted. Many young people will still pack up and go away to a college after their senior year of high school, but others will choose and benefit from a wider range of alternate paths to pursue higher education and a career.
We have already seen many innovations that weaken the predominant concept of college as an exclusively campus-based experience. Online education will continue to evolve and, as it does, so will our notion of the classroom and faculty-student and student-student interaction. And as the value of project-based and experiential learning is more widely embraced, service learning and corporate internships will play an even bigger role in higher education, taking a larger portion of the learning off campus. The bundling of courses from several providers, even if the education culminates in a degree earned from a specific college, diminishes the association of a single campus with a college degree. And there are many new alternatives to the campus-based model. Students participating in the innovative Minerva Schools model for example, start their education with foundational courses in San Francisco, but spend their next three years as cohorts moving about the globe.
If where students go to college will become more complicated in the future, so will when they go and for how long. Adolescents completing college-level MOOCs, high school students taking more AP and college credit courses, adults entering degree programs—all these trends complicate the traditional standardized start time for a degree. And remediation trends remind us that our established notions of a predetermined “college ready age” is not sacrosanct. And while the standard baccalaureate degree is conceived of as a four-year endeavor, this is changing as well. Some institutions tout three-year degrees, while a critical institutional research data point is set at the six-year graduation rate. The competency-based education model offers a dramatic departure from the standardized college timetable. The baccalaureate degree will be increasingly supplemented by the advanced degree, by the professional certificate, by nanodegrees, and expertise badges (a bad name for a good idea), promoted through a personal branding learning portfolio and offered by a range of providers. Lifelong learning, no longer a luxury, will be necessary for career security and advancement. Education and training have been artificially separated, and this distinction has helped define what a college does and does not do. However, in the day of the knowledge worker, this distinction is less relevant than it was 50 years ago. Closer partnerships between the private sector and the education community will spur unique and innovative educational models that extend the educational experience off campus. And many private sector players out there providing education and training are bypassing the college system entirely. As the barriers to entry have been diminished, the post secondary ecosystem has become far more complex.
Traditional colleges will remain part of the mix, as they retain a niche in an increasingly competitive education market. They provide a sound and proven model of teaching and learning. The debate over the future of college has been diverted by a discussion about the best model for college, a back and forth of lamentations and criticism. It is premature and ill-advised to dismiss the traditional model or discount new approaches. There will be failures mixed with successes. Such is the innovation process. The developments cited above and future ones that we cannot even envision will broaden and redefine the college experience.
What will the word “college” mean to future generations? It will likely mean different things to different people. Language lags innovation, and new words may emerge to better distinguish the range of options. The spectrum of options and models will be more diffuse. And that could be a very good thing. Education is too large an issue to be monopolized by any group or sector; the more parties involved in creating and providing sound and affordable solutions to major societal challenges related to education and training the better.
We should not limit how we think about the future of higher education during this intense period of innovation. And contrary to the warnings of skeptics, there is much reason to be optimistic.
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 This speculation on the future of higher education has both positive and negative impacts on the industry, which I discussed in a past Q&A on The EvoLLLution.
Author Perspective: Business