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10 Predictions for Higher Education’s Future

Rough times.

May 26, 2020
 
 

Most experts predict we will not have a vaccine for COVID-19 until mid-2021, more than a year from now. In the meantime, the American higher education community is going to be turned upside down, and the educational effects will last long after the virus has been brought under control. What will the impact be? Here are 10 predictions. Summary: disruption will finally arrive.

1. Colleges and universities will try to open, but it will be challenging.

Most private colleges and universities, and a large number of public ones, will welcome students on campus this fall, because they face a total financial disaster if they do not. The semester will, however, in no way resemble what we knew before the crisis. Many large lecture classes will meet online, all dorm rooms will be singles, dining halls will operate at reduced capacity with long lines and most traditional campus activities will be curtailed. As the weather gets colder, universities will experience COVID-19 outbreaks, and many students will head home again. Some parents will sue when their children get sick or die; other will demand refunds or sue because the interrupted education does not meet their expectations. Every withdrawal will be accompanied with a 100 percent refund request. Universities will struggle to deal with all this, particularly because they will have laid off many of the student affairs and financial aid staff members on whom they would ordinarily rely to cope.

2. Revenue will go way down, and costs way up.

Even if they open, universities will be hammered financially. Enrollment, and thus tuition revenue, will drop substantially, probably by as much as 30 percent. Meanwhile, operations costs will skyrocket, given decreased dorm and dining hall density and higher cleaning costs, IT and health services demands, and loss of offsetting ancillary income. State schools will see a major drop in state funding. Massive layoffs, salary cuts and program terminations, already underway, will continue and deepen. Expect some schools to declare exigency and use the emergency to drive a major reordering of academic programming, to the detriment on the humanities, arts and traditional in-residence education.

3. Colleges will maintain a major online presence.

Now that most colleges and universities are operating online, university presidents and administrators will want them to stay online. Short term, faculty will go along with this. They understand that institutions will need to offer online classes to maintain social distancing. But when institutions pivot, seeking to transform many of their degree programs into permanent online offerings, expect tenured and tenure-track faculty to raise serious questions and to resist. Lots of shared governance challenges will surface as a result.

4. The nation will debate the value of in-person education.

Pundits and critics of higher education, many of them in elected office, will be quick to declare that since the COVID-19 crisis has proved that online education works, we should move to permanently substitute online for most traditional in-person college education. A major debate over the value of our traditional higher educational model will ensue. Defenders of the traditional model -- like defenders of the liberal arts over the last 40 years -- will lose, despite having many great arguments on their side.

5. There will be massive online competition and consolidation.

Right now, we have 5,000 online institutions. All of them will want to stay online and to market new online programs, but the market will only sustain a fraction of that amount. Expect clear winners and losers to emerge quickly. Why go to a no-name online program when you can go to an online program that also has a nationally ranked football team? In five years, we will have no more than 50 major online universities, many of them powered by partnerships with major Fortune 500 corporations and sports marketing budgets -- and every other institution else will be scrambling to survive. Institutions will need to carve out a specialized niche -- or possess a strong and enduring brand -- to survive.

6. There will be an existential crisis and many closures.

I expected many institution closures before COVID-19. Now, I expect more than 750 to 1,000 to go under. Lots of small privates will close. The real question is: What will governors and legislatures do when their state public systems continue to operate in the red? Most, I suspect, will close and consolidate some campuses as students migrate to comprehensive and consolidated online systems.

7. No federal bailout.

Despite the financial devastation, there will be no bailout of higher education, because our schools, unlike airlines or banks, lack the political clout needed to mobilize sufficient support. Congress is highly skeptical about the efficiency of the sector and concerned about high tuition; Republicans despise “tenured radicals”; our polling numbers for public approval are low.

8. More corporations will enter the market

As more education is delivered by IT, and not on a traditional campus, expect technology companies to enter the market. In some cases, they will do so in partnership with universities with strong brands. Expect things like “the University of Texas, powered by Google.” But once a university is conceived of as an IT platform, not a campus, there is no reason major tech companies, who possess stronger brands than most universities, won’t seek to compete on their own. These systems will value communication skills and celebrity teachers more than traditional academic credentials. Just as cheap content destroyed traditional journalism, expect cheap educational content to destroy the traditional professoriate. If you don’t do research valued by the market -- meaning, science, technology and medicine -- expect your discipline to shrink.

9. Greater inequality will result.

The market will fragment into two segments. A reduced number of institutions will offer traditional residential education to wealthy or gifted students, who will benefit personally and professionally from the experience. Everyone else will be shuttled into weaker online or partially online programs, many part-time. Graduates of traditional programs will have a major leg up in employment markets, fueling increased inequality.

10. A new ubiquitous learning platform will emerge

As more learning moves online, expect a major effort to develop and deploy a Facebook for learning, a ubiquitous and highly personal site, powered by AI, that curates individual learning opportunities and documents outcomes. Many are trying to develop that platform now; the winner will make billions of dollars.

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