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Changes Needed for Institutions To Remain Viable in 50 Years

U.S. Higher Education: The Next 50 Years Could Make or Break Institutions
In order for institutions to thrive in 50 years time, they will have to meet the specific needs of their communities and ensure that teaching is an institutional priority.

What will higher education in the United States look like in the next 50 years? It depends on the ability of colleges and universities to respond to rising student expectations and new ways of learning.  How universities position themselves will depend on what niches they intend to serve and the educational experiences they provide that will make them unique.

There are three areas that are paramount in shaping the future of higher education institutions:

  1. Instructional environment;
  2. The professoriate;
  3. Changing demographics in higher education.

Since institutions take a long time to die, it is difficult to predict whether there will be more or fewer institutions in half a century. However, if institutions wantonly choose not to address these three areas of discussion — and if they don’t have an endowment or other means by which to sustain themselves and their operations — they could well disappear or be reduced in size, fated to become boutique institutions serving a narrow audience.

Instructional Environment

The ability of students to enhance their own learning experiences, and universities’ capabilities to make the student experience innovative, competitive and distinctive, will ensure which higher education institutions enjoy success in the future. In recent years the impact of online learning systems, specialized institutions and the increasing number of global competitors have focused on creating greater value for students.

The pace of change occurring in the use of technology in academe has transformed the learning process. Indeed, the challenge in the future will be how to build an educational system around the investment made in forthcoming technologies. Some institutions will face considerable challenges to make the transition necessary to provide a broader and more accessible system of higher education attuned to the technological advances to come. These trends will continue to be amplified by the willingness of political leaders to structure higher education to operate as a market, with universities and colleges competing to supply the service of education.

The Professoriate

According to reports among higher education institutions there has been a shift in whom they employ to teach students. About 70 percent of instructional faculty at colleges and universities are off tenure track (June, 2012). At present, the changing nature of the professoriate through the reduction of tenure and tenure-track faculty has required more administrative work (i.e. committees) for some tenured faculty while research requirements have increased for others. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT, 2009) shows that, between 1997 and 2007 tenure-track positions increased by 8.6 percent; full-time, non-tenure track positions grew by 38.2 percent; and part-time positions grew by 42.6 percent (AFT, 2009). To be fair, the percentage of tenure and tenure-track faculty composition varies among the types of institutions; however, there can be no denial of the growth of non-tenure track, part-time and other instructional faculty across higher education.

Presently, the debate on whether tenure is a good or bad thing continues to rage. These substantial changes in faculty distribution over time indicate that entrenched positions on which area, whether research or teaching, has greater importance will not be the key issue in the future. However, adjusting to paradigm shifts affecting research, teaching and learning will become the survival tools for higher education’s future. Perhaps more important in the future will be finding more efficient and effective means to connect learners and faculty with the results, implications and procedures of educational research.

Changing Demographics in Higher Education

In 50 years, the United States will experience a population growth largely due to communities of color, communities that historically have not had success in our higher education system. Looking ahead to 2050, the growth rate of the Anglo population will slow over the next 50 years, and the growth rate of African Americans, Asians and Latinos will far exceed Anglo population growth. By 2050, the Anglo population is projected to be near 211 million people, the Black population 61 million people, the Latino population 103 million people and the Asian population nearly 33 million people (Murdock, 2006).

The demographic concurrence of an aging Anglo society and growing cohorts of minority youth represents a window of opportunity for institutions of higher education to play a key role in enhancing

the nation’s global competitiveness. Whether the United States’ growing uneducated minority population will contribute to economic productivity or become a drag on social resources hinges on higher education’s success in broadening access to education for a growing population.

Reducing the large racial and ethnic disparities in higher education is essential not only for broadening access to higher education, but also for opening the pathways to leadership and redefining the terms of inclusion in the most demographically complex nation in the world.

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American Federation of Teachers. (2009). The American academic: The state of higher education workforce 1997-2007. Washington, D.C.: American Federation of Teachers. Retrieved February 25, 2013, from

June, A.W. November, 2012. “Adjuncts Build Strength in Numbers: The new majority generates a shift in academic culture.” Chronicle of Higher Education, Volume LIX, 11.

Murdock, S. (2006). Population change in the United States: Implications for human and socioeconomic resources in the 21 st century. San Antonio, TX: Institute for Demographic and Socioeconomic Research, University of Texas San Antonio.

National Education Association Research Center. (2007). Part-time faculty: A look at data and issues. Washington, D.C.: National Education Association. Retrieved February 25, 2013, from

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