I would predict that the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is. There would be nothing surprising in this even in the light of our present knowledge. It would not be foolish to contemplate the possibility of a far greater progress still.
John Maynard Keynes, Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren (1930)
We are suffering just now from a bad attack of academic pessimism.
Swap out economic for academic in the sentence above, and you have the first line from Keynes’s 1930 Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren. Just as Keynes was able to look decades forward from the economic depression that was beginning to grip the West when he penned his essay, we can follow his example and gaze with optimism at the long-run future of higher education.
Admittedly, developing an optimistic viewpoint on the future of academia is difficult during this time of pandemic. COVID-19 will accelerate a postsecondary realignment that will result in closure or merger of a potentially large number of institutions. Many tuition-dependent colleges and universities once thought that they would have at least a few years to evolve their business models in the face of demographically driven drops in demand. By simultaneously eroding revenues and driving up costs, COVID-19 is accelerating the pace of an ecosystemwide postsecondary reckoning. Coming out of the pandemic, many schools will be smaller (in terms of faculty and staff), more narrowly focused (in terms of degrees and programs offered) and more economically vulnerable than at the start of 2020.
From a generational perspective, rather than a time frame of the next few years, the long-term prospects for higher education as a sector are enormously positive. This optimism over the long-term future status of the colleges and universities that compose the broader postsecondary ecosystem should also extend to students, faculty and staff. Our grandchildren’s higher education will better -- if different -- than ours. We have many reasons to worry about higher education in the short to medium term, but at least five reasons to be hopeful in the long run.
Reason No. 1: Rising Global Educational Attainment
Judgments about the future of higher education depend on the lens through which we view the sector. If we choose to look only at the future of higher education in the U.S. or other wealthy countries, the picture is mixed. Aging societies characterized by slow economic growth and existing high rates of postsecondary participation will see more evolutionary than revolutionary changes across higher education in the decades to come.
If we widen our lens to include the countries in the world where the vast majority of people live, the long-run higher education story becomes considerably more exciting. By 2040, the number of students enrolled worldwide in higher education is expected to grow to almost 600 million, up from 216 million in 2016. This growth will be driven by the growing demand for postsecondary education East and South Asia, Latin America, and Africa.
With all the challenges that higher education is now facing regarding international students (COVID-19, Trump, etc.), now is the time to make substantial strategic investments in global education. The best time to invest in a market is not at its peak but at its (artificial) low.
Long-run demographic and economic forces will result in an inevitable growth in demand for postsecondary education. U.S. colleges and universities can invest for the long term, either by bulking up online capabilities and programs or by building satellite campuses.
Reason No. 2: Technological Progress
How will technological progress drive opportunities in the postsecondary sector? To answer this question, we only need to keep in mind Amara’s law:
We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.
We have no shortage of ed-tech boosters eager to overestimate the short-term impact of educational technologies. Whenever anyone tells you that some combination of online learning, virtual reality and adaptive learning platforms will “disrupt” higher education, you should immediately be suspicious that they are trying to sell you something.
In the long run, however, progress in the technologies of education will radically change our postsecondary ecosystem. And these changes will be for the better. Our grandchildren will indeed enjoy postsecondary options that are difficult for us to imagine today.
How will this all play out? This is a future that higher education must create for itself. The worst thing we could do is to abdicate the future of higher education to companies and other for-profit players. We need to be experimenting with the integration of learning science and technology to ensure that we create the higher education that we want. Our goal should be to drive down costs while simultaneously increasing quality.
New and evolved technologies will enable colleges and universities to serve a global demand for postsecondary education. I’m excited about how we will evolve and create our technologies to achieve low-cost online degrees at scale. We will find ways to integrate educators and AI, mobile and virtual, to create immersive and personal and transformative learning experiences.
Reason No. 3: Advances in Health and Health Care
It is a commonly heard worry today that ours is the first generation that will outlive its children. This is a worry born primarily from the social and health effects of growing economic inequality, a shrinking middle class and the increasing concentration of wealth at the top.
While I don’t want to minimize these concerns, it is essential to keep in mind that the long-term global trends in health and health care are hugely positive. Childhood mortality continues to drop precipitously in emerging economies. Life expectancy is rising equally fast. If you are worried about the state of the world, spend some quality time on OurWorldInData.org.
Globally, increases in health will be one of the forces driving up demand for higher education. In the U.S., I expect that life expectancy will also increase dramatically for our grandchildren. This belief may run counter to today’s conventional wisdom, but I am fully confident that advances in health care in the next 30 years will eliminate many causes of disease.
Combine this speculative prediction (health care-related advances in life expectancy) with demographic trends (population aging and fertility declines), and it is easy to see that the next great market for higher education will emerge within older adults. Colleges and universities should be planning today to offer educational programs -- both degree and nondegree -- for older students. We should be building campus housing for retirees. We should be finding ways to integrate traditional 18- to 22-year-old students with nontraditional 65-plus age students.
Reason No. 4: The Emerging Global Middle Class
Long-run demographic forces guarantee that the vast majority of future college students will be found in the emerging economies of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Long-run economic forces provide confidence that all these students will be able to pay for their postsecondary degrees.
One of my favorite websites is the PWC World in 2050. PWC estimates that in 2050, the GDP per capita in China will $43,400. This is up from $19,200 in 2020, with estimates in constant 2020 dollars. In 2050, India’s GDP per capita is estimated to climb to $25,900. Brazil will get to $31,600. Indonesia to $32,600. Vietnam to $28,200. Nigeria will still lag but will get to $10,900 by 2050.
What all these income projections tell us is that countries with vast populations (China) and very young age structures (Vietnam) or both (India) will have populations that will be able to afford college in 2050. The global demand for higher education will make the U.S.’s baby boom (1946 to 1964) driven expansion of higher education look comparatively insignificant.
Some colleges and universities will make the investments necessary today to build the global brands of the future. It takes a long time to build a global higher ed brand. The time to start is now.
Reason No. 5: The Energy Transition
I want to end this translation of Keynes’s 1930 thinking from the economic prospects of his era’s grandchildren to the academic prospects of our grandchildren by thinking about energy.
How does energy relate to higher ed? I’d say both directly and indirectly.
Over the next 30 years or so, the transition from fossil fuels to renewables will define the global energy story. Climate change will be one driver. So will new technologies that will drive down the relative cost of solar and wind. The shift from gasoline to electric vehicles will be part of this shift.
Higher education is a crucial player in enabling this next energy transition. It is in our laboratories that much of the technology will be created that will result in more efficient solar cells and longer-lasting batteries. Our scholars will build the ethical and economic foundations that underpin our future renewable energy economy. Colleges and universities have a direct and indispensable role to play in creating and shaping our energy future.
A future of abundant clean energy also means a future of greater global demand for higher education. Reliable electricity in emerging economies will create the conditions necessary for enrollment in online learning -- power. The spread of connectivity and the expansion of bandwidth will march hand in hand with the diffusion of (renewable) energy. The connected and powered world of 2050 will result in many more people wishing to earn an advanced degree.
Even in the midst of COVID-19, we need to approach the long-run future of higher education with excitement and confidence.
Higher education will be the industry of the 21st century.
If Keynes were alive today, he'd be the first to tell us that the academic prospects of our grandchildren are marvelous to contemplate.