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Forecasting the future, once the realm of fortune-tellers, psychics and shamans and of dream interpretation, divination, horoscopes and numerology, has increasingly become an art and a science.

Forecasters now use qualitative methods, including historical analogies, scenario analysis and expert focus groups; market research, such as observations of consumer behavior and analysis of leading indicators; time series and trend projections, like extrapolation and interpolation; and predictive modeling, using linear regression, multivariate linear regression, polynomial regression, logistic regression, predictive algorithms and bootstrapping, permutation and resampling.

Still, even expert prognosticators are notoriously inaccurate, reflecting the role of bias, chance, dogmatism, chance, errors of judgment, human agency, ignorance, misinformation, noise and failures of imagination in prediction.

What does the future hold for higher education? A new Ernst and Young report, “Are universities of the past still the future?” by Richard Cawood and Caroline Vasques, offers the advice of a leading higher ed consulting firm. Two sentences sum up the report’s argument:

“Growing turbulence from demographic shifts, geopolitical challenges, changing workplace demands and high student expectations for a quality digital experience are creating a tsunami of disruption. This will threaten the very existence of those universities that are unable to adapt to the sector’s new realities.”

Invoking a phrase associated with Bryan Alexander and Clay Shirky, the report argues that we have reached “peak higher education,” just as we have purportedly reached “peak oil” and “peak car.” After decades of growth, the size of the higher ed sector has reached its limits. “Falling birth rates are already shrinking the pool of traditional undergraduates … The international student ‘gravy train’ has hit the buffers and new digital learning providers are growing fast, cherry-picking the most lucrative learning programs.”

The report explores “how converging technologies, shifting demographics and new business models might change the sector’s structure.” The authors ask university leaders to “think the unthinkable” and ask themselves:

  • What if … higher education providers are held accountable for results?”
  • What if … “domestic demand for traditional, campus-based higher education never returns to previous levels?”
  • What if … “the cohort of international students, on which markets such as the U.K., Singapore and Australia heavily depend, never fully bounces back”?
  • What if … colleges and universities lose their monopoly over credentialing?
  • What if … “if a technology giant introduces learning that is continual, flexible, customizable and equitable”?

You, like me, may consider those concerns a bit unrealistic and hyperbolic.  After all, almost all the decline in enrollment in U.S. colleges and universities has, so far, taken place at two-year institutions. Demand for a brick-and-mortar college experience remains strong, despite the price. As for gainful-employment regulations, designed to ensure that graduates earn enough to pay off their college loans, these have only applied to for-profit institutions. So far, neither Congress nor the U.S. Department of Education has shown any interest in holding nonprofit institutions to account. In addition, no alternate credential, badge or certificate can match the value of a bachelor’s degree. 

But there are other sources of disruption that strike me as much more likely.

What if … students opt for different educational formats? I think it is not unlikely that many students would prefer to have 60 percent of their classes online and another 20 percent of their education take the form of internships or field or laboratory experiences, as Soumitra Dutta, a professor of management at Cornell, speculates.

Such a shift could have all kinds of possible consequences. With fewer students on campus, the more prestigious institutions could, conceivably, enroll more students—which would worsen the plight of less selective or resourced colleges and universities. Chat-based instructional support could sharply reduce the number of teaching assistants.

At my own campus, the administration has incentivized departments to develop and offer scaled, asynchronous online service courses, without (as best I can tell) the regular substantive interaction that is required under federal financial aid regulations. So far, these are only offered during breaks or in the summer, but the writing is on the wall. Already, my department has lost upward of 20 percent of its faculty, with further cutbacks on the horizon.

I already hear the siren call voiced by MOOC proponents a decade ago—that quality will increase even as costs are cut. As Cawood and Vasques put it, “charismatic experts, supported by high-quality video, graphics and gamified learning exercises,” will bring subjects “to life much better than a single professor at the front of a lecture hall.” Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

The mega-lecture (mine typically serve 800 students each fall) was always a pact with the devil. In exchange for lighter teaching loads, the large lecture was in fact a distance learning course. I can barely see the students in the back of my large auditorium. Once we agreed to eliminate breakout sessions and discussion groups, any illusions that this was a high-quality learning experience were dashed. Now, those lectures can be replaced by an even more cost-efficient model.

What if … students come to doubt the value of the traditional, in-person, campus-based experience? The appeal of “traditional” campus life—organized around intercollegiate athletics, fraternities and sororities, student government, and active participation in various university affiliated clubs and organizations—seems to be fading, even at an old-style institution like UT Austin.

As the campus has become ever more focused on business, computer science and engineering, more and more students show little interest in the shared events that once defined the campus’s culture and identity. Undergrads instead form their social and professional networks in labs, research teams and various maker spaces, entrepreneurship hubs and technology accelerators.

The institution is becoming more siloed and the students more professionally focused. Much of what the student life office offered has fallen in value, but the professional colleges haven’t yet sufficiently stepped up to the plate to fill the void.

What if … undergraduates want more experiential learning? Apart from a handful of institutions including Drexel, Northeastern and the University of Cincinnati, the overwhelming majority of colleges and universities haven’t figured out how to provide internships, externships, co-ops, practicums, clinical placements, apprenticeships or other pre-professional experiences at scale. I suspect many more undergrads will demand access to such opportunities. Will our campuses be able to deliver?

What if … students require much more mentoring, advising and academic, personal and psychological counseling? Colleges, like K-12 schools, now deliver many of the social services that society has failed to provide, including childcare, food pantries, health services and housing and transportation assistance. There’s every reason to think that demand for these and other support services will only increase. Already hard-pressed to meet students’ needs, campuses must figure out how to enhance and pay for services if they want to sustain enrollment and raise graduation rates.

What if … even more undergraduates decide to major in especially challenging fields of study that require advanced math skills, have severe capacity constraints or are especially expensive to offer? The current strategy—very rigorous entry requirements, weed-out courses and gated majors—isn’t, in my view, sustainable. Our institutions need to figure out how to bring many more students to success in fields like computer science, cybersecurity, data science, neuroscience and nursing. It’s not only a question of equity. It’s about diversifying these fields and meeting pressing societal needs.

What if … this society wants undergrads to be able to move seamlessly from one institution to another? Currently, nearly 40 percent of undergraduates transfer. Most pay a high price for that decision. They lose credits (on average, the equivalent of four courses) and academic momentum. Many are forced to repeat courses, exhausting financial aid and delaying completion. Morally and, increasingly, politically indefensible, the barriers to transfer must come down. But that will require institutions to collaborate and align curricula and requirements in ways that they have resisted in the past.

What if … early-college/dual-degree programs significantly expand? Forty percent of my department’s enrollment comes from state-mandated U.S. history courses. Already, a growing number of entering freshmen receive credit for those courses from early-college/dual-degree programs, AP or IB courses, or credit by exam. A sharp increase in those numbers will have devastating effects on my department’s student credit hours, no doubt with profound consequences for our faculty’s size.

It’s sad but true: students who don’t fall in love with their first-year college history survey will never take another course in the department.

Clearly, my department needs to find alternative sources of enrollment. Several strategies come to mind: expanding public history offerings, developing programs in high-tech history (including app and serious games development) and documentary filmmaking and building closer connections with pre-professional programs in business, computer science, engineering, environment/sustainability, medicine and law. However, I’m not especially optimistic that such strategies will be agreed to or implemented. Consensus is hard to build, and new lines open up slowly and are hotly contested.

What if … leading research faculty and grant recipients find alternatives to university employment? Just as a number of high-profile journalists have discovered that they can earn more money and garner more visibility by publishing independently on email newsletter platforms like Substack, I am already aware of cutting-edge colleagues who have left the academy to partner with start-ups. These tend to be the faculty members who attracted the largest grants and contracts. Their loss not only costs the institution enormous amounts in overhead, it also undercuts the ability of the campus to depict itself as a hub for innovation and commercialization. Unless campuses like my own can incentivize these faculty members, provide substantial seed funding and build public-private partnerships, entrepreneurship at universities is likely to flag.

Big disruptions are fast approaching. While campuses are acutely aware of a coming tsunami, much attention focuses on the wrong issues. Yes, less selective, underresourced institutions in regions facing population decline need to worry about the looming demographic cliff. Certainly, campuses need to worry about competition from the mega-online providers, like Southern New Hampshire and Western Governors and the oversaturation of the professional master’s degree market.

But as institutions reinforce the Maginot line, investing ever more of their resources in marketing, facilities, athletics and student life, the real challenges are likely to come from elsewhere—perhaps from the issues I have listed above.

You’ll recall a story that Abraham Lincoln told at the Wisconsin State Fair in 1859. It began with these words: “It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentiment to be ever in view and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words, ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’”

Lincoln then went on, “How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride; how consoling in the depths of affliction!”

As our campuses contemplate the future, I’d suggest a different phrase to bear in mind: Expect the unexpected and count on surprises.

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

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