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I’ve written on “The Shape of Higher Ed to Come” – as have so many. Perhaps a more relevant, practical questions is this one: What’s the right model for higher ed?

Just six or seven years ago, many thought mistakenly that for-profit education or competency-based education or MOOCs or boot camps or personalized, adaptive software was the winning model. It isn’t.

Reviewing past predictions should remind us about the feebleness of our powers of prognostication.

Still, what might American higher education be like a quarter century from now?

The most likely scenarios, of course, involve extrapolating from existing trends. And if any single trend stands out, it is the intensifying stratification and differentiation of higher education.

American higher education has always been hierarchical and highly diversified, but in recent years it has been bifurcated in novel ways, with more adult-serving institutions, more fully online institutions, and many for-profit institutions, boot camps, and competency-based programs, each with its own distinctive curricular pathways, pedagogical approach, and instructional staffing model.

There is every reason to think that the process of stratification and differentiation will quicken, with elite private research universities, liberal arts colleges, institutes of technology, and the best-funded public flagship campuses amplifying their advantages, while other institutions experience chronic budgetary and enrollment shortfalls.

The best resourced institutions already offer a range of programs much broader than at other campuses. Their faculty are far more likely to hold tenure, their amenities are more gleaming, their financial aid more generous, and their student support services far more robust. They already recruit the best prepared students as well as most of those who can pay full freight.  In addition, by leveraging their brand, these schools’ graduate, professional, and continuing education programs are already outstripping their competitors.

At the other end of the spectrum are higher education’s declining sectors: those for-profits targeted by politicians and accreditors for their abusive recruitment practices, low graduation rates, high levels of student debt, and poor job placement records, as well as rural and religious colleges with fewer than a thousand students and underfunded public regional comprehensives located in areas of demographic decline, which will be forced to merge, reduce their faculty numbers, and limit the range of programs.

In between are two very different kinds of institutions. Some, mainly urban institutions in areas experiencing economic and demographic growth, which will successfully exploit their comparative advantages – their physical location, support from local industry and government, and donor base – to raise their profile and increase their amount of contract research. But there are also institutions that are chronic invalids, which must raise their discount rate and lower their tuition revenue to sustain enrollments, increase class sizes, downsize humanities programs, and rely more and more on adjunct faculty to stay afloat.

The stratification among institutions is unlikely to be confined to resources and reputation. It seems plausible that differences in mission, student bodies, curricula, pedagogy, and staffing models will also intensify. Some institutions are likely to continue to prioritize a face-to-face residential education and high-impact pedagogical practices, while others will emphasize online and hybrid learning and make greater of instructional software. Some will likely remain focused on the liberal arts while others become more vocationally and professionally oriented. Some will rely heavily on adjunct faculty while others will have a greater proportion of tenured faculty and lecturers with multi-year contracts. 

Among the biggest differences are likely to involve admissions, with the most well-resourced institutions continuing to attract those students with the highest levels of preparation while other schools enroll a far more diverse and poorer student body, including large numbers of first-generation college students, recent immigrants, adult learners, veterans, students with disabilities, English language learners, and other non-traditional students.

This is one scenario, but it co-exists with a number of other possible futures. Six alternative scenarios strike me as particularly plausible because these build on trends already underway.

The first – what we might call a middle school through the job market or graduate school track – consists of a much better aligned and more seamless educational continuum, beginning in high school and extending through community college and four-year institutions, and onto the job market or graduate and professional schools and continuing education programs. Under this scenario, costs are cut and time to degree is accelerated by distributing the acquisition of undergraduate credits to less expensive institutions.

Increasing number of students, under this scenario, acquire college credits in high school through Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and Dual Degree/Early College programs and in community college. As a result, a growing number of four-year institutions will focus primarily on the upper-division years. To sustain a sense of institutional identity, many students might co-enroll in a community college and a partner four-year institution.

A second approach – a career-focused model – places a greater emphasis not on traditional disciplines but on broad career domains, such as the arts, business, communication, computing and analytics, engineering, health care, the applied humanities and social sciences, and social and psychological services.  A career-orientation need not be at the expense of the arts and humanities, since these areas of study might be better integrated into these fields. For example, a health care track might include courses on medical ethics, the medical humanities, health informatics, representations of the body, the history of disease and public health, and the literature of pain and illness. But the opportunity to major in a traditional humanities discipline might narrow.

This career-focused approach would undoubtedly become more common at less well-funded regional comprehensive universities that are already under intense pressure to emphasize marketable skills.

A third model would make experiential and project-based learning an integral component of the undergraduate experience. Far from being add-ons or enhancements, undergraduate research, coop education, practicums, field- and community-based experiences, service learning, study abroad opportunities, and entrepreneurial experiences in maker spaces would become central to degree pathways, testing and documenting students’ ability to apply real world skills in authentic contexts.

A fourth model might consist of a multiplicity of distinctive options from a diversity of providers. Students’ skills and knowledge would, in turn, be recorded on a “universal” transcript and collected in a portfolio which would document all of a student’s competencies and earned accomplishments, whether acquired in the military, through corporate training or MOOCs or non-university non-profits, or from an educational institution. The items included on such a competency transcript might include courses, boot camps, professional certificates, or some other form of certification.

In this model, the lines between academic and corporate training and undergraduate, graduate, and lifelong learning might blur.

A fifth approach might involve an increasingly technologically-mediated education, in which traditional courses are supplemented with self-paced  classes that utilize interactive courseware, personalized, adaptive software, simulations, serious games, and augmented and virtual reality activities. This technology-assisted approach would probably rely heavily on non-faculty advisors, coaches, feedback providers, and graders, as well as autograders and peer comments. 

Such an approach need not be wholly impersonal. We are already seeing the emergence of microcampuses, boutique or storefront extension centers, where students can use instructional software and receive face-to-face support.

A sixth possibility is an approach that we might call higher education in the cloud: A pick and choose model, where students search for appropriate modules and courses from an online higher education marketplace, where they can easily enroll in programs from many different providers, academic and non-academic. Under this scenario, individuals would be able to stack various credentials to meet their specific needs.

The idea of an online credentials marketplace is not far-fetched. Already, a number of state workforce commissions and foundations are already exploring such a multi-provider model. Of course, a key is ensuring that these credentials are marketable and valued by employers and, given the size of the credentials universe, that potential students receive the kind of advice needed to make intelligent choices.

If I had to guess, I think we will see an uneasy mixture of elements from each of these models. The better resourced institutions will build on their comparative advantages, opening new programs and placing an even greater emphasis on experiential learning, global educational opportunities, entrepreneurship programs, and high impact practices – setting them even further apart from less selective and well-funded colleges and universities. 

The effect, I fear, is that degrees from less prestigious institutions will be viewed by employers and graduate schools as significantly less valuable than those from their more elite counterparts, much as the more exclusive and highly ranked public and private high schools, defined in terms of test scores, graduation rates, college readiness, and proportion of students taking Advanced Placement tests, give their students a big leg up of college admissions.

Steven Mintz, who directed the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning from 2012 through 2017, is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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