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As we enter the 2020s, I want to share my 10 predictions for higher education in the coming decade.

1. 100 Small Colleges Close

Economic pressure will increase on small rural colleges and over 100 will close their doors. To survive today, a small college needs a great location, a large endowment and a powerful brand. Schools with all three of those attributes will thrive. Schools with one or two will have challenges but get by. Schools without any of the three will fail.

2. Transformation of the NCAA

In the coming decade, large universities with big sports programs will pay their players, and application of antitrust laws will lead to robust wage competition. Forty-five major sports universities will decide to compete. Everyone else will opt out, choose true amateur athletics and Division I as we know it will implode.

3. Higher Education Finance Debate

Education costs will continue to rise above inflation, forcing a nationwide debate over higher education finance. Is higher education a private good, to be paid for with personal loans, or a public good, to be paid for with government grants? Congress will wind up greatly expanding Pell Grants, and many states will adopt free community college, but a college education will remain increasingly unaffordable, leaving many more students opting for technical training instead.

4. Continued Humanities Enrollments Decline

Humanities enrollments will continue to decline. Students at elite colleges and universities will continue to major in history and literature, confident in their long-term job prospects, but everyone else will continue to move toward pre-professional degrees. Pundits will still insist that the liberal arts are the best career preparation, and they will be right, but that argument will continue to fail to get any traction – except with the wealthy, who already believe it.

5. Reinvention of Accreditation

Accreditation currently does little to advance quality assurance, and the process is slow, expensive, unwieldy and bureaucratic. This cannot continue. Moving forward, accreditation leaders will begin to set objective outcome and finance standards and reinvent their processes, to focus more on quality and results and less on bureaucratic box checking.

6. Disruption

People have been predicting for decades that technology would disrupt higher education, but little has changed. The reality is that technology does not disrupt industries – more agile and sophisticated companies do. Given the deep frustration of the tech industry with the current state of education, expect companies like IBM, Microsoft, Facebook and Google to enter the K-12 and higher education space not just as software providers, but as education providers with their own suites of learning management software, courses and credentials. The tech companies will enter the space as part of their competition for mind share, but the end result will be to push aside many traditional higher education providers.

7. Tenure Crisis

Currently, we have a two-tiered faculty system. Only 25 percent of faculty are tenured or on the tenure track and have acceptable wages and benefits, while 75 percent are adjuncts, with very low pay, no security and no benefits. As universities fight to stay afloat financially, use of cheap adjunct labor will increase to a crisis point, with frequent strikes and demands by adjuncts that compensation pools currently paying for tenure-track faculty be shared with them. In response, some universities will abandon both tenure and the exploitative adjunct model entirely and adopt a new paradigm. Faculty will not have tenure, but fixed-period contracts with contractual guarantees of academic freedom and bonuses for high teaching performance evaluations and outstanding research outcomes. Compensation will fall in the middle of the current spectrum, lower than current tenure-track salaries, but much higher than what adjuncts are currently paid, with benefits the norm.

8. Increase in Inequality

As education prices increase, and public financing decreases, many elite private colleges and universities will de-emphasize equity in admission in favor of revenue generation. Private elite colleges and universities will revert to their role prior to enactment of the GI Bill, propping up wealth and privilege, and that will be increasingly acceptable to wealthy families familiar with the model from private K-12 education. 

9. Expanded University-Corporation Research Partnerships

As lab and research costs explode, the complexity of research problems escalates, and federal research funding continues to dwindle, expect more high-profile partnerships between universities and corporations who depend on research to drive their bottom line. This, in turn, will drive down basic research in favor of work with clear profit potential. 

10.  U.S. Exports More Students

As domestic education costs continue to rise, expect more U.S. undergraduate students to seek out less expensive options in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Though this will hurt U.S. institutions, it will produce a more geopolitically aware American population.

The views expressed in this article are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of the Navy or the United States government. 

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