Predicting Higher Ed’s Post-Pandemic Future: Futile or Fruitful?

“It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

September 24, 2020

Predictions about the future blanket the higher ed press. The post-pandemic future of higher ed will witness:

  • The closure or merger of hundreds of small colleges and regional comprehensives.
  • Greater stratification of institutions in terms of resources, breadth of programs and student preparedness.
  • The proliferation of faster, cheaper nondegree certificate and certification programs.
  • The dominance of master’s programs by national name-brand institutions

Which speculations will prove correct? Who knows?

History is contingent, and the outcome inevitably hinges on what Donald Rumsfeld called the known knowns, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns.

If Democrats were to win the White House and both houses of Congress, it seems likely that there’d be a concerted effort to bail out state budgets and sharply reduce student debt.

But how that would play out for individual colleges and universities is unclear. The answer depends on policy choices:

  • Will funds be directed at students or institution?
  • Will a bailout be accompanied by cost controls or a requirement that institutions admit a certain percentage of Pell Grant-eligible students?
  • Will rescuing private institutions be a priority?
  • Will government regulate the use of adjuncts or establish and enforce rules about regular and substantive interaction in online classes?

If the 21st century should have taught us anything, it’s the utter unpredictability of the future. We’ve witnessed:

  • Two presidential elections in which the popular vote winner lost.
  • Terrorist strikes resulting in warfare that hasn’t ended.
  • The election of the nation’s first Black president.
  • The worst economic crises since the Great Depression.
  • The most deadly pandemic in a century, followed by urban protests unmatched since the 1960s.

In short, be humble about our capacity to predict the future.

There are, however, other lessons that we shouldn’t ignore. These include the importance of human agency and its nemesis, irony: that is, the law of unintended consequences.

We have an ability to shape the future -- but an ability inevitably constrained by circumstances and other factors beyond our control.

My advice comes from the Stoics: control those things you can control. Or embrace the advice of Peter Drucker: “You cannot predict the future, but you can create it.”

I’m afraid my specific advice might sound a bit like platitudes:

  • Make sure your institution has a clear and distinctive identity.
  • Capitalize on your institution’s existing strengths.
  • Embrace opportunities for revenue growth, but only if they’re realistic and mission-aligned.
  • Empower your most dynamic faculty and staff members.
  • Aggressively pursue external funding.

And the most important pieces of advice:

  • Serve your students and your community very well.
  • Foster a “We’re all in this together” culture.

As a Stoic would tell you: that’s the best you can do.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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