Thomas Frey predicted that 50% of colleges would collapse by 2013. Similarly, Clayton Christiansen is quoted as saying that 50% of colleges will not exist in 15 years. Others have made similar claims. Such predictions are based on tracing the impact and likely trajectory of innovations like blended and online learning, open learning, technologies allowing for mass customization and personalization, adapting learning software, and a growing set of alternative pathways to gainful and skilled employment.
I agree that all these trends and more will have a signficant impact on higher education as we know it. There will be more pathways to work, and I have hopes that the liberal arts will be set free from the ivory towers to flourish in open and public spaces and in local communities. The forthcoming innovation of tuition-free community college (and possibly four-year degrees) in large sections of the United States (if not the entire nation) will also shift power and structures in higher education, causing some tuition-driven college models to struggle or fail.
Such changes and innovations will drive colleges and universities to have a much-needed identity crisis, to genuinely grapple with three questions. What is essential about who we are and what we do? What is important about who we are and what we do? And, what is merely present (or largely malleable) about who we are and what we do?
- The role of the professor will be challenged, as we already see with confusion and debate about the value and future of faculty tenure.
- The cracks in the aging credit and clock hour systems will become increasingly transparent.
- Efforts to cling to the letter grade system will suffer under increased scrutiny and increased acceptance of alternatives.
- Debates about credentials and micro-credentials will expand.
- Debates about distinctions between training and education will persist, but answers within the Ivory Tower will be inadequate. They must be debated in the public square, open to as many people as possible.
- The classroom lecture will diminish in value amid growing acceptance of alternative teaching and learning methods.
- The role of faculty member will be unbundled, rebundled, renamed, and unbundled again; creating entirely new roles that augment or sometimes replace of that traditional teaching faculty.
- Universities will find it necessary to more fully articulate and defend the societal role of research, which should not be difficult to defend in areas having direct implications for human health and well-being, but might struggle in areas that have less widespread agreement about the value.
- Entirely new forms of higher education will emerge and there will be growing debate about education versus job training, and there will not be a single winner, because there will be many forms to evolve that reflect one, the other, or both.
- Enrollment in some traditional institutions will decline as some opt for new forms of education and training.
- Uniform instruction will be contrasted to personalized learning, and personlized will eventually win; but concepts of learning communities will gain increased traction being an important third way that pulls from both.
- Unbundled services will continue; with more partnerships, subscription services, agreements, and contracted services becoming a standard and commonplace practice.
- Big data will will drive more decisions and bring about a new form of administration. In the mid-term, it might seem to drive institutions toward heartless and inhuman calculations about who can and should do what (as in who should be pre-med and who should be a med-tech), but the humanities and positive psychology will curb the direction of these efforts, eventually leading them toward more humane uses. Or, such views will be crushed under number-crunching analysts. The future is uncertain here.
- The role of the social life, extracurriculars and intercollegiate athletics will gain new levels of scrutiny, celebration and debate; and there will likely be an unbundling of these elements just as we’ve seen with other parts of the academic experience.
- Current blended and online learning practices will become quickly outdated as new research and technology leads to a reinvention of learning and teaching at a distance.
- The value of regional accrediting bodies will gain a new level of scrutiny, leading to their diminished role, the development a larger number of them, or more oversight residing in state and federal offices.
- The debate about preparing skilled workers for some sort of global competition played on the grounds of science, technology, engineering and math will continue to clash with understanding about the power of celebrating nurturing the uniqueness of each person and what they can contribute to the world.
These debates and questions (and many others) will shape and reshape the surviving and thriving higher education institutions of the future. Those schools that refuse to take seriously such questions, unwilling to clarify and communicate their identity, will struggle to survive, and some will close. Yet, I believe that those higher education institutions that face these questions with persistence, depth and the passionate disinterest becoming of a scholar will contribute to a new wave of higher education, one that will thrive and continue to make important contributions to society. The appeal to authority or expertise of professors and higher education institutions, along with rhetoric and emotional appeals will not be enough to stave off the need for deep, honest and (especially important) open reflection about these matters.
Will that mean that only half survive? I think that is too simple of a picture. Many will have extreme makeovers, but will emerge with new life. Some will shrink while others expand. And along that, I am convinced that we will see an entirely new breed of higher education institution- hyper-local, living and learning communities of 100-300; some communities sharing resources across them while maintaining their distinct culture, educational philosophy, and niche contribution (I will be writing more about this in the future). As such, I expect that, by 2030, we might have two to three times as many higher education institutions as we have today, even as there will be more alternatives to the traditional college routes for people. Get ready for the higher education “startup” revolution.