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Predicting the future is a fool’s game. But it’s a game that remains irresistible – and necessary – if we are to prepare for what lies ahead.

The American higher educational system has proven to be remarkably adaptable and resilient. As we’ve recently learned in the case of Sweet Briar, it’s awfully hard to close a college. The value of an institution – to faculty, staff, alumni, and the surrounding community – is simply too great to allow a college to shut down without protest.

But the challenges that face higher education are daunting, especially for small rural colleges and regional comprehensives located in areas with falling populations. Demographic, financial, and political pressures appear likely to intensify.

What, then, might the future hold?

Let’s look at an odd but plausible analogy: Summer camps.

Sleep-away camps first appeared in the 1880s in response to the shifting conditions of modern life – that is, around the same time that the modern research university and liberal arts college were taking shape.

Part of a “back-to-nature” movement that included the development of urban parks, resort hotels, and national parks, the summer sleep-away camp offered a respite from the stresses and moral and physical degradations of the modern city. Camping also represented a response to male fears of a overcivilization and the stifling, supposedly “weakening feminine influence” of modern society (according to Ernest Balch, who founded the first summer camp in 1881).

Above all, camps offered a way to defuse tensions in inward-turning, emotionally intense middle-class families. It provided a break for parents and an opportunity for kids to find a friendship network outside of school.

At the same time that affluent families sent their kids to expensive and idyllic camps in Maine or other bucolic spots, Fresh air camps provided a way for removing the poor from dangerous, debilitating urban environments. Generations of poor and working class kids went to sleep-away camps run by the YMCAs, YWCAs, the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and other non-profits.

In the aftermath of World War I, summer camps, which originally stressed martial skills, increasingly offered a romanticized version of wilderness life. Camps celebrated Indian lore and recall the country’s pioneer days. Campers learned such survival skills as fishing, building fires, canoeing, and craftwork. Camping’s associations with wilderness reflected and contributed to the growth of a nascent environmental consciousness.

During the 1950s, summer camp became a mass experience among middle-class girls and boys, driven in part by anxieties over Polio. In eight weeks away from home, the young dabbled in crafts, undertook nature study, swam, hiked, sat around campfires, heard ghost stories, and engaged in competitive sports and free play, free from parental authority.

In recent years, soaring operating costs and fees, increasing legal liability, and the shrinking size of the traditional camp-going population resulted in a radical transformation of camping. Eight week sessions were replaced by one or two week stints. Helicopter parents and working parents alike were increasingly reluctant to send their kids away for weeks on end, while their children were becoming less interested in a protracted period away from the pleasures of home.

At the same time, specialty camps replaced traditional “general interest” camps. There was a proliferation of art camps, computer camps, cooking camps, SAT prep camps, and theater camps.  There were also a growing number of family camps, special needs camps, and camps for adults.

What might this brief history lesson suggest for the future of higher education?

1. To justify their price, institutions have to demonstrate their value
No longer is it sufficient to claim that the purpose of camp is escapist fun. Camps need to be educational or developmental, not in the older sense of promoting social skills or independence, but to prepare kids for their personal future, by providing a skills set or professional athletic training.  

Camps have become a means to an end.

Colleges and universities – especially disciplines in the liberal arts – might consider unconventional ways to enhance their value proposition.  These might include pop-up courses, intensive boot camps and institutes, in areas of high demand, like project management, application development, design thinking, or business skills.  Higher education might also bundle a bachelor’s degree with a master’s or a certificate.  Work-learn models might combine formal study with paid internships or campus jobs.

Like summer camps, institutions might want to emphasize their distinctiveness, not only in their programmatic strengths, but in their pedagogy and academic experience.

2. No institution can be divorced from the broader cultural climate
Once, the goal of camp, certainly for boys, was to toughen the young, build healthy bodies, instill competitiveness, and strengthen character. The goal has certainly shifted, with an increasing emphasis on comfort, safety, entertainment, and mixed sex socializing.

The residential college and universities tends to share that goal.  Spartan dormitories and institutional food have given way to elaborate amenities.  Especially for the upper middle class, college is as much a coming of age experience as an intellectual hothouse, with a robust suite of activities and an emphasis on safety.

But we also inhabit a culture that values doing and making (and commercializing). Campuses might more closely integrate the co-curricular and the curricular and give students maker spaces where they can develop projects and engage in entrepreneurial activities – and offer digital badges or other alternate credentials to recognize demonstrated skills.

3. To remain relevant, institutions must adapt and evolve
An institution, no matter how deeply entrenched, needs to change to meet new realities. Much as camps have had to adjust to a shifting marketplace, higher education, too, must adapt to demographic shifts and student preferences. Summer camps are no longer solely for kids; higher education is only beginning to aggressively pursue the undergraduate adult learner and degree completer markets.

Pedagogy, too, must adapt. Even at residential campuses (or in medical schools!) students are less content to sit in lecture halls and seek online experiences. These, of course, can’t be digitized talking heads, but need to be interactive, social, and highly engaging.

4. Segmentation is a hallmark of the contemporary marketplace
In recent years, the mass market has given way to a much more segmented marketplace, allowing for a greater degree of personalization and customization.  In this respect, postsecondary education was well ahead of summer camps.

Higher education has always been segmented – for better and worse. Indeed, it has been higher education’s diversity – research universities, regional comprehensives, teaching intensive institutions, liberal arts colleges, adult education institutions, community colleges, rural and urban, among others – that has made American postsecondary education so accessible and adaptable, even if the ecosystem is unduly stratified.

It does, however, appear that traditional higher education is becoming somewhat less diverse, as teaching-oriented institutions increasingly incentivize research, liberal arts colleges institute vocationally-oriented programs, and a growing number of community colleges offer bachelor’s degrees.

Institutions ask themselves if there might be advantages in identifying niches, distinctive identities, and zones of special expertise rather than trying to be all things to all people.

5. The essence of an experience can persist even as its form changes
Is space camp or robotics camp or creative arts camp the same kind of experience as the older general interest summer camp? In some respects, yes; in other respects, no. Campers’ schedules now allow for more free time and less strenuous physical activity, and as a result summer camps are less director or counselor centered and more camper-centric. But for all the changes that have occurred, camp remains a time when kids separate from parents and many of their school or neighborhood friends, and have an opportunity to construct a very different identity.

College life, too, is shifting, slowly and unevenly, with a greater emphasis on active learning and experiential learning.

More radical innovations are also beginning to take root. NYU is giving students a path to graduating in three years. Co-op and other earn-learn models are becoming more common. And unbundled credential pathways consisting of stackable certificates are starting to emerge.

Other unconventional approaches are spreading. In one notable example sponsored by the non-profit Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, K-12 history teachers can take online seminars from Pulitzer Prize winners and receive Master’s credit from Adams State University. Another example is the American Museum of Natural History’s Masters of Arts in Teaching, which offers a stipend to those who participate in its residency in Earth and space science.

Will such innovations disrupt the existing model? Time will tell. But student behavior is already shifting, with students acquiring learning from multiple providers that include not only dual degree programs in high school or from community colleges, but from the military, corporate training, MOOCs, and coding academies.

The evolutionary message – adapt or die – can’t be escaped.

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