Perhaps you recall one of the great lines from Back to the Future. No, I don’t mean “Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads.” Or “Nobody calls me chicken.” Or “Why don’t you make like a tree and get outta here?”
No, I mean Doc Brown’s advice at the trilogy’s end: “Your future is whatever you make it, so let's make it a great one.”
No one knows what the future holds. It is, as Doc Brown says, a blank page. Still, it’s approaching fast, and speculations about its contours are arriving fast and furious.
Among the most provocative comes from Brandon Busteed, chief partnership officer and global head, learn-work innovation, at Kaplan.
Some of his predictions seem self-evident:
- That test-optional admissions is here to stay.
- That more and more faculty will make their video-recorded lectures available online.
- That classes will make greater use of educational technology, including collaboration, annotation and data analysis and visualization tools and virtual laboratories and simulations.
A number of other forecasts strike me as likely:
- That institutions will be held more accountable for meeting their diversity, equity and inclusion metrics.
- That institutions will offer more online course options.
- That faculty will rely less on high-stakes exams.
Still others seem plausible:
- That elite institutions will come under increasing attack over their refusal to grow and to admit a more representative student body.
- That more faculty and staff will have opportunities to work from home.
- That virtual internships will become more common.
- That schools will increase their postbacc online degree and nondegree offerings (even though the market already seems glutted).
Then there are somewhat more daring projections that at this point seem less likely, like more flexible academic calendars with multiple start dates or employers on a mass scale offering education as a benefit or substituting skills-based credentials for degrees.
In his "House Divided" speech, Abraham Lincoln remarked, “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it.”
So where are we?
1. Universities are now far more aware of inequities of all sorts.
Among the most notable examples: the declining proportion of Black and Latinx students graduating in STEM fields.
2. The educational pipeline remains very leaky.
Of every 100 high school freshmen, 36 will graduate with a bachelor’s or associate’s degree in six years, and just 22 will land a job commensurate with their education.
3. The widening gap in college degrees by women and men.
Among the Class of 2021, 143 women received a postsecondary degree compared for every 100 men.
4. Administrators and faculty are conscious about the economic and psychological factors that inhibit learning and the policies can lessen retention rates and slow academic momentum.
It’s now obvious that many of the impediments to success are in large measure within an institution’s control if it is willing to accept its responsibilities.
5. We continue to do a relatively poor job of serving nontraditional students.
Especially community college transfer students, working adults and family caregivers, and those from low-income backgrounds or who received uneven high school preparation.
We appear to be at one of those historical junctures where a combination of pressures will force tectonic shifts. Remember Herbert Stein’s law: "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop." We are at a point where we need to adapt if we are to serve today’s extraordinarily diverse student body.
In case you missed it, we are witnessing:
- A growing momentum for accelerated learning options.
These include expanded early-college offerings and credit for life experience programs.
- An increase in lower-cost options.
Perhaps you saw that South Utah University has announced a $9,000 degree, even cheaper than Rick Perry's call for a $10,000 degree. How do they propose to do this? By restricting the number of courses and offering faculty who will teach overloads at $3,000 per course. Then there is the increasing trend among community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees, with Arizona becoming the 24th state to authorize such programs.
- Expanded certificate and certification offerings.
Amazon has opened a technical academy; Cisco, a networking academy; Google, Career Certificates; IBM, a free online training program called SkillsBuild; and Microsoft, a Global Skills Initiative.
What is missing from many higher ed forecasts is something that strikes me as likely unless we take aggressive steps to reverse the trend: an increasingly stratified educational experience.
Stratification within higher education is, of course, nothing new, and it’s not simply a matter of resources or student selectivity or faculty teaching loads. The gap between a residential education and a commuter experience or between an in-person and online education are only the most obvious divides.
But over the course of much the last century, the long-term trend was toward convergence. Whether students attended a research university, a small liberal arts college, a flagship or land-grant university, a regional comprehensive, or an urban campus, and whether they pursued a liberal arts or a vocational or pre-professional degree, the curriculum, requirements and pedagogy did not dramatically differ.
But now we’re seeing the emergence of a new kind of gap. If students go to a selective, well-resourced institution (or take part in an honors program), they are much more likely to encounter a wider range of program offerings and to receive a variety of experiential learning opportunities and to participate in rich co-curricular and extracurricular activities. Project-based learning, maker spaces, mentored research and entrepreneurship activities are far more accessible.
At less resourced, broad-access institutions, especially at the community colleges that are doing the most to increase graduation rates, the educational experience is quite different. It has become highly structured and intensively supervised. In some instances, it more resembles high school than college.
The embrace of structured pathways, intensive advising, block scheduling, fixed degree maps and wraparound supports are very well intentioned. But that approach differs profoundly from the current educational ideal with its emphasis on hands-on learning and treatment of students as partners and producers of knowledge.
What an irony! For all the calls for equity, we are institutionalizing a new kind of educational divide that's even greater than the one that existed in the recent past.
It’s not fair. It’s not right. And for those of us who are committed to fairness and equal opportunity, it’s a divide we need to reverse.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.