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If I were forced to predict what higher education will look like ten years from now, I’d say this:

  • Small liberal arts colleges will be limited to a handful of highly endowed institutions.
    It’s not just under-endowed, rural colleges with fewer than a thousand students that are in trouble. Many name-brand liberal arts colleges are also under stress. Many fail to reach their enrollment goals and increase their discount rate. The sad fact is that the liberal arts college advantage – the dedication to teaching, the close student-faculty ratio, the sense of community, the high graduation rates – is increasingly outweighed by the disadvantages: Limits on program offerings, location in isolated settings, and price. Lacking many economies of scale, these institutions face a crisis: demoralized faculty, diminishing applications, and costs that continue to rise well above the inflation rate.
  • Outside of the more selective, more highly resourced colleges and universities, the private sector as a whole will experience a dramatic decline.
    Private colleges and universities are increasingly caught in the grip of two troubling trends: a dramatic decline in the number of full-paying students with high college board scores and state policies that favor public over private institutions. It’s an environment in which only the well-endowed will thrive.
  • The number of community college transfer students will rapidly rise.
    Climbing costs will encourage an ever growing number of students to start their college career at a community college.  If four-year institutions do not find a way to enroll expanding numbers of transfer students, then the pressure on community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees will be unstoppable.
  • In the name of reducing costs, states will pressure public institutions to award credit for lower-quality courses offered in high schools and elsewhere.
    Dual credit/dual degree programs are already flourishing as are efforts to mandate transfer not only gen ed courses, but courses that count toward majors. As a result, the ability of four-year institutions to maintain the quality of their graduates will be in danger.
  • The stratification of the higher educational ecosystem will intensify.
    Differences in assets increasingly translate into differences in the quality of the undergraduate experience:  not just in amenities and facilities, but in the breadth of support services, the range of program offerings, and the opportunities for study abroad and mentored research. But the worst form of stratification may lie in the actual education that students receive, with those at wealthier institutions receiving a rich liberal education supplemented by extensive opportunities for experiential learning, while less well-funded schools offer more and more low-quality online classes increasingly in vocational areas.
  • Name brand institutions will increasingly dominate the key growth markets, for online master’s  and certificate programs, lifelong learning, and continuing education credits.
    The worry among many top private and public institutions that embracing lower-cost online education at the post-baccalaureate level will dilute their brand is rapidly evaporating. To be sure, some will continue to offer graduate programs at premium prices, but a growing number, hungry for new revenue streams, are already marketing new scaled programs targeted at a global audience. With their cachet and brand recognition, these institutions are likely to skim the cream of potential applicants.
  • Alternate instructional staffing models will proliferate.
    Already, many state universities lack sufficient numbers of graduate fellows to serve as graders, forcing them to cap enrollment in large lower-division lecture courses. Pressure to find a solution will mount. Solutions will likely include tapping upper-division undergraduates and recent graduates, as well as expanded use of autograding software. There is also the troublesome prospect of outsourcing grading. In fact, at least one faculty member already attempted to outsource grading to Bangalore.

There is one much touted prediction that strikes me as unlikely: Clayton Christensen’s forecast that half of U.S. colleges will be bankrupt in ten to fifteen years. It is very hard to close a college. Colleges are supremely valuable community assets, as providers of employment, purchasers of goods and services, purveyors of culture and entertainment, and emblems of civic pride. Any mass closure of such institutions would be a nightmare politically.

An alternative to closure is the kind of merger that one suspects will occur with Hampshire College, where a public institution acquires the campus and uses it to house an honors college or a specialized program.

What can be done to prevent this nightmarish vision from materializing? 

Innovative, entrepreneurial leaders can make their institution indispensable to their local community, for example, as research hub and incubators. Or such leaders can identify and fill a particular niche. Meanwhile, states can increasingly redirect their funds toward regional and urban campuses and even toward private institutions that expand educational opportunity in underserved areas.

Better coordination and collaboration across institutional boundaries can make a big difference, including course sharing arrangements.

The need for advanced education will not abate. It will intensify. The United States has been distinctive in distributing educational opportunity more widely than any other country. Tough love, creative destruction, and economic consolidation may help spread material well-being.

But this process poses a genuine threat to our educational ecosystem, where consolidation will only serve to lessen opportunity and reinforce the class divisions that are already contributing to deepening economic disparities, stagnating household incomes, and political polarization

Steven Mintz is Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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