What Will Higher Education Look Like 15 Years From Now?

The biggest challenges that our colleges and universities will have to address.

November 21, 2021

Imagine a latter-day Rip Van Winkle fell asleep in 1957 and awoke (like the original Rip) 20 years later. His now-aged friends would relate incredible tales: of sit-ins, teach-ins, love-ins; of campus demonstrations, urban revolts, sexual revolution, calls for Black Power, feminist challenges to patriarchy, presidential assassination, war in Southeast Asia and a president’s forced resignation.

I suspect that Rip would suspect his friends of spinning tales. To all outward appearances, the country was largely unchanged. The two-party system was still intact, racial inequalities were still pronounced, the Middle East was still troubled.

Over time, our Rip would discover that the country had changed fundamentally, though not in quite the ways his friends suggested. The U.S. population had become much more diverse; working mothers and single parents were acceptable in ways unimaginable in 1957; de jure segregation was now illegal, even though de facto segregation persisted.

I tell this story as preface to a question that has been much on my mind: What will American higher education look like in 15 years?

Will it essentially resemble the system today or will it differ fundamentally?

Will higher education’s future be technology-driven? Virtual? Hybrid? Evidence-based? Flexible? Personalized? Skills-centered? Outcomes-focused?

My crystal ball is cloudy, but I can say this with some certainty:

  • We should expect the unexpected: another pandemic, a sharp economic downturn, a hard political turn to the right or left, or something else altogether is likely to occur, with unpredictable implications.
  • Threats to existing institutions lurk all around us: just a few include certificates, certifications, alternate credentials, private universities and corporations with huge brand names that could certainly dislocate the higher education landscape.
  • All reforms have unanticipated, unexpected and often undesirable consequences: even well-intended reforms (for example, common requirements across public university systems) can have aftereffects that are difficult to anticipate beforehand.

Obviously, projecting the future is an exercise in futility, in part because any accurate forecast hinges on political variables that are almost wholly unpredictable. It may also be ill advised, because that prediction may itself influence the future in ways that might be wrongheaded.

But colleges and universities do need to think a decade and a half ahead, both so they can fend off emerging challenges and so they can chart a path into their likely future.

We know from personal experience the utter unpredictability of the future. As a colleague recently put it: Who would have guessed, 15 years ago, that a tweet would be anything other than a bird’s chirp?

That said, we do need to prepare ourselves for the future, and I suspect that the best approach must resemble the Bayesian statistics I studied in graduate school: make inferences based on our best estimates of probability.

We might ask ourselves, are there any predictions that we can make with some degree of certainty? The answer, I think, is yes. Here are a few:

1. The economics of a traditional college education will become even more knotty than they are today.

As we all now recognize, the demographics of higher education are likely to become increasingly tricky, as the number of high school graduates, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, stagnates or even declines.

Other trends are likely to worsen the situation. As dual-degree/early-college opportunities expand, campus business models that hinge on large introductory courses will suffer.

2. Competition within postsecondary education marketplace is likely to intensify.

Already, alternatives to a traditional college education are proliferating, even if some of the threats (like the for-profits or the various boot camps) have fallen by the wayside. Competitors include fully online providers and certificate and certification programs.

3. One way or another, higher education’s affordability challenge will be addressed.

Remember the old saw: trends that are unsustainable will not persist indefinitely. The cost-push pressures that underlie increases in tuition will be tackled because otherwise a college education will become wholly unaffordable except for the affluent or except at the best endowed institutions.

I have no idea how affordability will be addressed, whether by loan forgiveness, free community college, income-based repayment schemes, accelerated time to degree, more affordable short-term credentials or something else. But college must become more affordable.

4. Pressures for equity will not only persist but strengthen.

I find it hard to believe that the demand for equity will abate. Accountability for equity in access, in entry into high-demand majors and in outcomes, including postgraduation outcomes, are likely to deepen.

When we try to anticipate the future, we need to avoid certain traps.

One common trap: extrapolating from current trends. History rarely proceeds in a linear direction. Sometimes, it moves dialectically. At other times, seemingly randomly or unpredictably. Institutions will respond to existing trends and therefore alter those trendlines.

Another trap: letting one’s personal predilections or self-interest cloud one’s predictions.

Many projections of the future are little more than a form of wish fulfillment, or conversely, a reflection of our nightmares. To the extent possible, we must not let our hopes or fears color our predictions.

A third trap: exaggerating the influence of a particular variable.

Some of the changes that will occur in higher education will, no doubt, come from without: driven by foundations or the federal or state governments or ed-tech innovators. Others will come from within, for example, by pressure from undergraduates or graduate and professional students.

A fourth trap: failing to take account of the possibility of an unexpected disruption.

That disruption might be a crisis (like the pandemic or a sharp economic downturn), a disruptive innovation that that challenges existing models, or a public policy shift.

While I can’t predict the near-term future, I can certainly identify a number of hinges on which the future might well turn.

  1. The future of community colleges. Should community colleges continue to juggle their current roles—vocational skills training and academic programming—or should they focus more on one of these functions, either on job training, upskilling and reskilling, or on academics, by offering bachelor’s degrees?
  2. The future of public university systems. Should individual campuses continue operate largely as stand-alone institutions or should public university systems operate in a more coordinated and integrated manner?
  3. The future of the less selective, less resourced private colleges. Should states try to tightly integrate small private colleges into their public higher education systems, or should these institutions continue to operate independently?
  4. The future of adult education. For all the talk about lifelong learning, it’s not at all clear how that will be provided or by whom. Perhaps universities will dominate this sector, just as they currently control graduate education, but perhaps others will step in: MOOC providers or boot camps or corporations like Amazon, Google and Microsoft, either alone or in collaboration with college and university partners.
  5. The future of the college business model. For years, futurists have predicted the demise of the large in-person lecture to no avail. It’s not only cost-effective, but, in a surprising number of instances, inspiring. But if gen ed courses increasingly gravitate into high schools, how will campuses make up for the revenue generated by these classes?
  6. The future of academic experience. If there’s anything that MOOC mania taught us, it’s that colleges and universities need to double down on their comparative advantages: the personal relationship between faculty and students, the rich and robust extracurriculum, and opportunities for experiential and project-based learning.

Many of us believe that campuses need to better balance a course-centric curriculum with other kinds of educational experiences, especially mentored research, internships, study abroad, clinicals and practicums, and service learning. But whether campuses will figure out how to scale experiential and project-based learning remains to be seen.

I can no more predict the future than you. But I do know what those of us who value liberal education ought to fight for. We need to mobilize our collective influence to pressure this society to:

  1. Ensure that all high school graduate should be able to attend the kind of institution that will best serve needs, with cost no longer serving as an impediment.
  2. Make the kind of undergraduate experience that is without a doubt the best—an in-person liberal education on a residential campus—much more widely accessible.

We also need to do more to improve student learning. It’s no secret that the chief beneficiaries of our current system of higher education are the most privileged, richly resourced institutions and, yes, tenured faculty. We need to be honest with ourselves: at the more privileged institutions, the dominant faculty priorities are research and the ability to teach narrow classes in our area of specialization.

In other words, higher education’s incentive structure is imperfectly aligned with what I think should be among our highest goals: undergraduate learning, workforce preparation and student growth and maturation.

I’m not holding my breath, but maybe, just maybe, the next 15 years will witness a shift in priorities, with a greater emphasis placed on mentorship, feedback, project-based learning and close student-faculty interaction. I certainly hope so.

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

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