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Predicting the future is easy. Anyone can do it. 

Getting the predictions right, however, is what’s hard.

A video produced by Microsoft Office Labs in 2009 offered a vision of technology in 2019. It included simultaneous transitions between languages, touch screens, gesture controls, e-paper, wall-sized smart displays, voice activated digital assistants, and pocket projectors.

All have their counterparts today, but remember what’s missing. There are no team-based, mobile collaboration tools, like Slack or Google Docs, and nothing about predictive analytics, apps, machine learning, or the Cloud. The video doesn’t envision 3-D printing or the omnipresence of GPS.     

Speculations about the future are often wrong for several reasons: They convey a false sense of certainty, extrapolate current trends, and fail to anticipate contingencies, those “unknown unknowns” that include unforeseen events and shifting circumstances.

Recent months have brought a spate of books and reports predicting the future of higher education, from Deloitte’s Center for Higher Education Excellence and Georgia Tech's Center for 21st Century Universities to the non-profit Education Design Lab. David J. Staley’s Alternative Universities offers ten innovative designs for the universities of the future.

How accurate will their predictions prove? Time will tell, but let’s take a look.

The current outpouring of predictions began with Stanford 2025 and Georgetown’s “Five Pump-Priming Ideas.” Both plans sought to address four basic challenges:

  • Challenge 1: How to reimagine the semester and the 3-credit hour course in order to provide students with more flexible learning opportunities.
  • Challenge 2: How to make undergraduate education more experiential, immersive, and skills oriented.
  • Challenge 3: How to integrate pre-professional training and work experiences into the undergraduate experience.
  • Challenge 4: How to provide students with lifelong learning opportunities.

Stanford’s D-School vision was built around three basic ideas: That an undergraduate education should focus on skills rather than knowledge; that students should be able spread education across a lifetime; and that the gen ed/major/elective model should be replaced by short intro courses, a “mission” that concentrates on a particular problem, and an experiential learning experience such as an internship.

Georgetown, in turn, put forward a call for greater flexibility in course design, including 7-week modules and intensive 1-week workshops, work-learn opportunities like coops, expanded mentored research, and a four-year combination BA-MA.

The more recent visions of higher education’s future are intended as much as provocations as predictions. In some cases, such predictions might be viewed cynically as examples of institutional self-promotion. But regardless of the motives, the predictions’ goals are worthy: to help administrators and faculty to think outside of the box and imagine radical alternatives to present-day practice.

Many of the models have jargon-ridden names that I, for one, find less suggestive than off-putting. Staley, for example, speaks about:

  •  The Polymath University, in which students combine three majors, one in the humanities and arts, one in the natural and social sciences, and one in a professional field.
  • The Nomad University, without a fixed campus location, but, rather, (Minerva-like) learning across the globe.
  • The Neo-Liberal Arts University, which stresses the development of such 21st century literacies as sense-making, social intelligence, cross-cultural competency, transdisciplinarity, and design thinking.
  • The Ludic University, with an emphasis on experimentation and speculation.

The Education Design Lab describes a variety of models to better prepare students for the future of work.  These include:

  • The "platform facilitator," like Coursera and edX, curating a variety of courses.
  • The "experiential curator" and the “learning certifier” which offers and validates a variety of experiences, including work and co-curricular experiences, off of the physical campus.
  • The "workforce integrator," which works closely with employers to integrate workforce competencies into its curriculum.

Then, there’s Georgia Tech’s report on “Creating the Next in Higher Education,” which emphasizes development of interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, minimester classes and microcredentials, technology-enhanced personalized advising, the use of artificial intelligence to personalize education, and a distributed world-wide presence.

Some predictions about the future seem warranted:

1. Higher education’s bifurcation will intensify.
Harvard and flagship envy has proven to be more expensive than many smaller institutions can afford. These colleges and universities simply can’t afford to provide the breadth of programs, services, and activities offered at the best funded institutions, even though they will continue to enroll the most at-risk students. The consequences for instructional staffing at the less well-funded institutions – including reliance on adjuncts and outsourced graders – are likely to be ugly.

2. Less selective institutions will become more career-focused.
Under-funded institutions will be under intense financial pressure to optimize their curricular offerings and focus their energies on areas of highest student demand.

3. A mastery or competency focus will become more widespread as pressures to reduce achievement gaps and verify skills intensify.
Pressure to bring all students to a minimum viable level of competency is likely to increase, as is the call for accountability in terms of verified, validated learning outcomes.

4. Alternatives to current practice will proliferate.
The three-credit hour class, the undergraduate major, gen ed courses consisting of introductions to particular disciplines – all are historical creations, and may well be replaced (or more likely supplemented) by other modes of learning: modularized experiences, workshops and institutes, experiential and immersive learning opportunities; practicums and clinical courses; and mentored research and internships. Delivery modes are also likely to expand, with multiple start dates, shorter courses, and easier on-ramps and off-ramps to allow students enter and exit programs.

5. Competition will mount.
The competition will from other four-year institutions, who are expanding their turf; from community colleges, which will increasingly offer applied bachelor’s degrees and other certifications; from high schools, that will offer the first year or two of an undergraduate degree; from mega online providers; and from others, some of which we don’t yet know. 

Perhaps I can go a bit further and make somewhat more precise predictions.

1. Statewide credentials marketplaces are likely to appear.
There is already pressure on state workforce commissions to establish credentials marketplaces where prospective students can easily locate, compare, and enroll in credential-bearing programs offered by a variety of providers, both academic and non-academic.

2. The number of training and educational programs offered by non-traditional providers will expand.
These will include not only technology firms, but non-profits (like the American Museum of Natural History or the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History), which will offer certifications, sometimes in partnership with existing institutions.

3. Those institutions that can afford to will become distributed universities
A growing number of institutions, Northeastern, already Northeastern University, are creating branch campuses and international centers to support distributed learning opportunities across a lifetime. For some elite institutions, a distributed approach will be away to at least partly appease the public demand that they serve many more students.

4. Successful institutions will be those that are the most entrepreneurial.
As Ronald Reagan said in the wake of the Challenger explosion, “The future does not belong to the faint-hearted.”  It’s not just ASU, Georgia Tech, and Southern New Hampshire that are entrepreneurial.  Many other institutions are getting the message that continuing and professional education, global outreach, and other initiatives are essential if they are to thrive in a volatile, uncertain environment.

Predictions are wrong more often than they are right.  Given that fact, what conclusions, then, would I draw?

Three conclusions strike me as warranted. The first is that higher education’s transformations will be driven less by speculative blueprints than by demographic, political, and market forces and student desires. Thus, for better or worse, the pressure to expand online and distance learning will intensify. So too will the pressure to control costs.  One outcome might be three-year degrees, with the first years of college completed in high school or community college.

A second conclusion is that higher education’s key stakeholders share a collective responsibility of ensuring that rigor and quality remains high, not only at highly selective institutions, but across the post-secondary ecosystem. We must ensure that higher education remains higher, and is not reduced simply to job training, and that online providers do not become digital diploma mills offering a 21st century electronic version of a correspondence course.

Then there is a third conclusion. The future, the Back to the Future trilogy concludes, “hasn't been written yet. No one's has. Your future is whatever you make it.”

We can rest assured that if we don’t shape the future, someone else certainly will.

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

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