The future of higher education — changes are afoot

Recently, three articles provided various insights into the future of college education. The first is a call for revolution; the second describes the multiple forces acting on higher education; and the third describes many of the forces that are tugging at, if not tearing apart, the world of higher education. After reading these it would be hard for anyone to think that colleges can continue to provide the same educational experience that they have been providing for the last several decades.

Questions remain, certainly, as to what colleges should do and, also, what prospective students should do. In the following I provide a few highlights from each article, and I conclude with my thoughts about both how I think students should think about their options and how organizations should respond to these challenges.

A call for a revolution

Oh, not that kind of revolution?

Over at, William J. Bennett recently wrote “Do we need a revolution in higher education?”. This is a thoughtful opinion piece that I encourage you to read. His basic points are as follows:

  • He describes the many cases in which “a college diploma may no longer guarantee the high potential lifetime earnings it once did.”
  • With “almost 54% of recent graduates were unemployed or underemployed,” “[a] college degree does not hold the status and significance it once did.”
  • “[E]conomic status now turns on many other things, like intellectual capital and skills training…”
  • “Many students are ill prepared for the labor market, whether by fault of their own or by colleges and universities that are out of sync with the needs of a skilled work force.”

It is clear that he thinks that colleges need to radically re-think what they do and the education that they provide.

Dueling purposes of higher education

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeff Selingo wrote a related piece titled “A college education with multiple purposes”.

What many of those in higher ed fail to realize is that as college has become more expensive, parents and students increasingly view a bachelor’s degree as a transaction. For many, education for education’s sake no longer cuts it. That doesn’t mean students shouldn’t major in French literature or philosophy, or anthropology, but institutions need to do better at connecting such academic programs to lifetime employment prospects. Otherwise, it’s going to be almost impossible to get students and parents to pay $200,000 for a four-year undergraduate degree.

At the same time, employers and politicians need to learn that if colleges provide training only for jobs that need to be filled now, those workers will probably be useless in about two years, given the rapid pace of change in most industries.

He makes a useful recommendation:

Colleges need to reframe the question when asking employers what they need. Instead of asking about the jobs they need to fill tomorrow, colleges should ask employers to describe the valuable skills of their best-performing and longest-serving employees. It’s likely the answer will be critical thinking, writing, team work, and problem solving — all attributes of a classic liberal-arts education.

Forces acting on higher education

David J. Staley and Dennis A. Trinkle, at the Educause Review Online (Jan/Feb 2011), wrote “The Changing Landscape of Higher Education”. In this article, they describe ten coming changes in college education:

Which way do I go?
  1. The increasing differentiation of higher education
  2. The transformation of the general education curriculum
  3. The faculty faces of the future
  4. The surge in global faculty and student mobility
  5. The new “invisible college”
  6. The changing “traditional” student
  7. The mounting pressure to demonstrate the value added of a college degree
  8. The revaluation of “middle-skill” jobs
  9. Higher education as a private rather than a public good
  10. Lifelong partnerships with students

These are all-encompassing changes in almost all dimensions of the industry — the students, the faculty, the value proposition, the competition, the content of the “good” (education, in this case). I highly recommend that you read this article to get a sense of the strength of these forces. Again, after reading this article and understanding the arguments that it makes, it seems impossible to me that anyone could think that higher education can continue in its daily operations in a business-as-usual basis.

Thoughts about the future

Oh, not that kind of revolution?

Each of the articles above are worthy of detailed explication, analysis, and reaction so whatever I say here is limited and leaves much uncovered. Given that, I have a few thoughts that I wish to highlight related to the future of higher education.

First, some people need time to grow up, to mature, after they finish high school. They are not ready for advanced study; they are not ready to join the work force; they are not ready to assume responsibility for their lives as citizens. Organizations (similar to the Peace Corps in a previous generation) have a great opportunity in front of them to be a training group for large groups of young adults who are transitioning into maturity but who are not interested in doing this while in college. These organizations don’t need to provide an academic environment, just one that supports their growth. Colleges have provided this environment for students of all types with the downside being that they have many students in their classrooms who are not interested in the education, only in the time away from home. The new reality will allow them to provide an education to those who are focused on the education.

Second, some people need specific knowledge and certification of that knowledge but have little desire to study other subjects. Training and certification organizations should get highly attuned to the needs of industry so that they can take these slightly more mature, more focused students and prepare them for specific jobs and careers. Later in their careers, as they advance in their companies, many young managers and entrepreneurs should be quite interested in advanced business training (whether as an MBA or otherwise, I do not know).

Third, the world has changed so that learning resources are now available to anyone connected to the Internet. Learning, not “formal education”, can occur anywhere. It can happen all throughout a lifetime, and can happen when a student is actually interested in the material. Colleges should think about how to sell their programs to these students, no matter their age or location.

Further, students should accept the idea of paying more money to gain access to world class professors in the subjects in which they are interested. It should become clear to everyone — prospective students, faculty, universities, governments, prospective employers — that the ideas and concepts within almost any class in the world is available in some articles, Web sites, and/or books somewhere. The students aren’t paying for the content, per se. The value of a class is provided in two ways: (1) the selection of topics and interpretation of the material, and (2) the interaction between the students and professor so that the student’s understanding can become more refined. A student paying for this high-priced education, no matter whether it is in person or distant, will assume that he/she will get plenty of interaction with the professor.

Finally, a person going into a career or living a “life of the mind” (such as a professor) needs the education and validation provided by a traditional education. Far fewer students need this than currently attend our colleges; many should get out of this business and redefine themselves or go out of business entirely.

The above are quite radical recommendations, asking for the complete reconstruction of the education industry. I know that, but I also have seen long-standing industries such as that for news reporting get completely blown up. I don’t see how education can avoid this fate. I ask that the education industry leadership take charge and make the needed changes proactively rather than waiting for other organizations to spring up and seize the opportunities.

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