Reflections on Trends and Disruptions That Can Support Higher Education’s Continued Relevance
If institutions of higher education have a key role in advancing and disseminating knowledge—within the individual and within society—then these institutions exist as a public good. Yet, higher education in the United States is increasingly under attack for being elitist, expensive, irrelevant, and out of touch. While we may see ourselves as a public good and vital for the country’s future, others may not.
As a result, we find ourselves justifying structures and practices for which we may have little evidence of effectiveness. Our own processes and traditions inhibit us from asking hard questions about who we serve, how we serve, and how well we serve. If we wish to continue to play an important transformational role for students and communities, we must adapt and change.
Unlike many other nations, America has no national system of higher education. Each institution has a unique history, structure and customs that have been a source of pride for individual colleges and universities and often led to beliefs and behaviors steeped in tradition, not innovation or adaptability. Another source of pride is institutional autonomy, yet colleges and universities currently find themselves bound by established structures, standards and federal legislation that define such things as credit hour, academic calendars, faculty workload, financial aid, accreditation, academic majors, grant eligibility, and funding ratios. This has led to a system of higher education that, despite the claims of college marketing departments, is often more alike than different.
Another similarity is in the way we often categorize and treat students as relatively homogenous and of similar age, culture, background, preparation and needs. Yet, new contemporary students have a greater diversity of experiences, needs, desires and dreams than ever before. They typically have more complicated lives than students of the past, which often interferes with the traditional notion of what institutions must do to meet their needs and help them be successful.
As the student demographic shifts from the classic traditional student who is looking forward to a traditional four-year collegiate experience, to the new contemporary student who needs to save time and money while earning a credential or degree that leads to a career, higher education institutions have already had to adapt.
Structurally, there are some changes most institutions have already made as they seek to attract and retain the new contemporary student. But there are other changes looming and we can either embrace and accept them or find ourselves less and less relevant in today’s market. Here are some trends the authors believe higher education should embrace, some things we need to consider, and some disruptive game changers on the horizon.
These are some things we should have already started or stopped:
- Stop the debate regarding the validity and effectiveness of online learning. It is here to stay, and studies have demonstrated the success of the model.
- Stop believing coursework must be delivered only in 16 weeks and 45 contact hours. Accelerated courses and competency-based outcomes enhance degree completion, meet student schedule needs, and help the contemporary student focus intensely on one topic at a time, increasing deeper learning.
- Start offering multi-dimensional student support. Contemporary students often need to learn social/life skills they did not learn in high school or at home, as well as receive advising and academic tutoring, and personal counseling.
There are several trends every contemporary institution needs to embrace now:
- Build interactive learning classrooms with live video and sound systems so students from across the street or from around the world can attend class virtually. Concurrently train faculty to facilitate deep learning in these environments.
- Build stackable credentials so that skills learned can help employability and concurrently lead to degree completion. Develop these in partnership with employers, so that outcomes match expectations and students and the people who will be hiring them are served.
- Reinvent the core and degree plans into interdisciplinary bachelor’s-plus degrees that better integrate the liberal arts with career and technical education. We continually hear from industry that students need soft skills, and yet the students with technical skills are the most employable. We need to do both.
And there are clearly bigger disruptions on the horizon. Contemporary institutions should not ignore key trends:
- The finance model for higher education is undergoing shifts, with both government and individuals balking at the cost of supporting traditional models. NACUBO is doing research on what will be sustainable in the future. The authors have no preferred model, but like others, they are sounding the warning so higher education leaders start thinking differently about who is willing to pay, and for what.
- The role of faculty is shifting. While American research is among the best in the world, researchers are not always the best teachers. Nor is tenure a guarantee of classroom quality and student learning. In more and more cases, institutions will find themselves seeking faculty who have contemporary workplace skills that can be directly shared with students versus lifetime faculty members.
- As virtual reality technology becomes more affordable, we will see science and technical labs using holograms, gaming systems and augmented reality, which could open the academy to a more diverse student body and provide richer learning experiences. This will ultimately save time and money for both the institution and the student.
Finally, we have two wild predictions that could be game changers. First, contemporary colleges will augment the 120 credit-hour model with variable degrees an adult can complete in less time and for less money. There are currently graduate degrees that do not require a completed bachelor’s, only a demonstration of competencies. Anglo American University in Prague has a 90-credits BA, and is accredited by WASC and has current MOU agreements with several California Community Colleges. The authors have discussed a plan for a 60+60 degree that takes a student through an AA or AS directly into a competency-based MA program, all of which would be completed in 120 credits. The structure of higher education will be fundamentally changed if discrete credit hours no longer serve as the measure of degree levels.
Second, imagine the day that Amazon partners with Credly (digital badges) and colleges to build coursework that is available to students on demand at an affordable price. Any student could build a schedule based on her needs. The badges would inform employers the student is gaining skills, be bundled into a degree awarded by an accredited higher education credit consolidator, and have no geographic boundaries. Even traditional students might prefer to build their schedule this way.
The world is changing, and higher education must change with it. In a world built on the increasing speed of technology and distribution of information, as well as personal choice, it is time to become contemporary institutions in order to serve the new contemporary student.
 Lederman, D., (2017) Is Higher Education Really Losing the Public? Retrieved April 30, 2018 from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/12/15/public-really-losing-faith-higher-education
 Robyn, E., & Lujan, L. (2017). Call Them What They Are: The New Contemporary Student. Retrieved April 1, 2018 from https://evolllution.com/attracting-students/todays_learner/call-them-what-they-are-the-new-contemporary-student/
 Askin, J., & Roberson, R., (2017). NACUBO Economic Models Project. Retrieved April 20, 2018 from https://www.nacubo.org/leadership-initiatives/economic-models-project
 ACENET Presidential Innovation Lab, (2014). Unbundling Versus Designing Faculty Roles. Retrieved May 26, 2018 from http://www.acenet.edu/news-room/Documents/Unbundling-Versus-Designing-Faculty-Roles.pdf
 Craig, C. & Georgieva, M., (2017). AR and VR in STEM: The New Frontiers in Science. Retrieved May 24, 2018 from https://er.educause.edu/blogs/2017/8/ar-and-vr-in-stem-the-new-frontiers-in-science