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When, at the beginning of the spring semester, I asked my upper-division undergraduates about their majors, almost all described fields of study that bore scant resemblance to those that existed when I went to college.

The architecture students were studying sustainable and green architecture, resilient urban planning to withstand environmental stresses and natural disasters, and parametric and computational design, using algorithms and computational techniques to generate design solutions responsive to an environment and various functional requirements.

The biology majors were working on synthetic biology and CRISPR and genetic editing and the neurobiology of mental health.

The business students were learning about the application of artificial intelligence (AI) to automating business practices, enhancing decision-making, and personalizing marketing and customer service; social entrepreneurship: and blockchain applications beyond cryptocurrencies to supply chain management, secure transactions and contract automation.

The chemists were studying green chemistry, nanochemistry and synthetic biology for chemical production.

As for the engineering majors, their focus was on biomedical engineering, including techniques such as tissue engineering and organ regeneration to replace or regenerate human cells, tissues or organs; robotics and autonomous systems; and the Internet of Things, the extension of internet connectivity into physical devices and everyday objects, allowing them to be remotely monitored and controlled.

Those in fashion were focusing on sustainable and ethical fashion, biodegradable materials, non-Western fashion traditions, smart and performance-enhancing fabrics, the psychology of fashion, and fashion law and intellectual property.

Not surprisingly, the math majors were concentrating on data science and big data analytics, but also on mathematical biology to solve biological problems, such as modeling ecosystem dynamics or disease spread, and cryptography, the mathematics of securing data, including the creation of secure communication techniques and encryption protocols.

For those in pharmacy, there were personalized therapies, biopharmaceuticals, advanced drug delivery systems, nano-formulations, AI in drug development, telepharmacy, tissue engineering, regenerative medicine, and pharmacogenomics, the study of how genes affect a person’s response to drugs.

Those in social work were studying trauma-informed care, digital social work, and integrated health care that addressed both physical and mental health holistically.

Those majoring in theater were focusing on digital projection technologies, sustainable and adaptable scenic design, integrated lighting design, virtual reality sets, digital theater, immersive theater, and theater for social change.

These students recognize that the future will be a very different world than the one I encountered.

No one supports a liberal education more strongly than me. But I also know that most of the cutting-edge jobs of the near future lie far outside the majors I am familiar with.

Some growth areas are obvious. These include artificial intelligence, algorithmic development, data science, information security, machine learning and supply chain management. But other academic areas of innovation lie outside those highly touted fields.

  • In biomedicine: Bioengineering and biogerontology.
  • In design: Accessibility, interactive experience design, and UX design.
  • In sustainability: Catastrophic risks and disaster management, climate change mitigation, conservation biology, ecocentric design, energy and environmental economics, energy modeling, environmental engineering, and hydrology.

What’s notable about all these fields is that:

  1. Most undergraduates and their parents, as well as faculty, advisers—and even career service specialists—don't know that these possibilities exist.
  2. In many cases, undergraduates can only study for these jobs at technology institutes or flagship and land grant universities or elite privates—not at the institutions that serve the most students: regional and urban public universities, smaller privates, and liberal arts and religious colleges.

Certainly, many community colleges do prepare folks for lower-paid jobs in these cutting-edge fields. Some universities, including Boise State and the University of Texas at Dallas, have established schools in innovation and design, or arts, technology, and emerging communication that offer specialized training animation and simulation, app, and video-game development.

But most colleges and universities lack dedicated, well-staffed programs in bioengineering, climate or atmospheric science, data science, ecosystem management, environmental earth science, materials science, new media or symbolic systems.

Most of higher ed is, alas, about perpetuating what’s already there and sustaining the existing hierarchy, and many emerging fields are scoffed at by established faculty.

Ironically, at many institutions there are more new programs in the humanities—in Asian diasporan studies, disability studies, ethnic studies, gender and sexuality studies, human rights, Jewish studies, Latinx studies, performance studies, and race and indigeneity—than in the STEM fields that are poised to transform life as we know it.

The need to prepare students for tomorrow’s employment landscape strikes me as an academic, educational and societal challenge that we ignore at our peril. It’s not enough to cobble together new majors, minors, and interdisciplinary programs by redeploying existing faculty who lack expertise in the cutting-edge fields.

The barriers are financial, curricular, cultural and political.

Developing cutting-edge programs requires significant investment in state-of-the-art equipment, laboratories and computing resources, while recruiting and retaining high-priced faculty who are experts in fast-evolving technological fields.

The rapid evolution of technologies in fields like AI and machine learning means that academic curricula can quickly become outdated. Keeping pace with industry standards and technological advancements requires constant curriculum review and revision, a logistical and financial challenge.

Providing students with real-world experience through internships or practical projects can be difficult due to competition for placement in top companies or the geographical location of the institution relative to industry hubs.

Rapidly growing interest in fields such as data science and AI means institutions must find ways to scale their programs to accommodate more students without diluting educational quality.

In addition, ensuring that students from diverse backgrounds have access to these cutting-edge fields requires proactive outreach and support structures that are difficult to implement effectively.

Among the biggest challenges is cultural and institutional resistance, because, except at the wealthiest institutions, strategic investments in new areas inevitably come at the expense of more traditional areas of study.

What can be done? Here’s my advice.

  1. Work with your state workforce commission, job market analytics firms such as Lightcast and cutting-edge employers to find out what lies ahead, what the bottlenecks are and what kinds of training and preparation future employees will need.
  2. Whether through workshops or other orientation programs, make sure entering students learn about the full range of academic opportunities on your campus and how these align with job market trends experience.
  3. Identify students who, with sufficient support, can succeed in certain cutting-edge fields and encourage them to pursue that direction by establishing field-specific learning communities, implementing supplemental instruction and offering bridge programs in especially challenging high-demand fields of study.
  4. Think seriously about how gen ed courses can better connect with these emerging fields, and incentivize faculty in the humanities and social sciences to create courses that align with shifting student interests.
  5. Bring in professors of the practice, coax grad student to teach relevant courses, partner with companies, medical schools and hospitals and other experts to offer internships, and adopt course-sharing to expand curricular offerings in the fast-growing areas of innovation.
  6. Consider moving to a 3+1 or a 4+1 model where students get grounded in STEM and the other liberal arts, and then get a focused year on what’s coming around the bend.

The future of American higher education must reflect a dual commitment: preserving the rich foundations provided by the humanities while simultaneously expanding in new fields that build on advanced mathematics and data analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, design thinking, sustainability, technology, and the frontiers of the natural and social science.

We need to make this kind of advanced and innovative education accessible to a broad range of diverse students. Doing so is not beyond our capabilities, but will require creative leadership, curricular innovation and a heightened institutional commitment to student support.

Addressing the challenges we face will require creative leadership that can envision and successfully implement a future-oriented curriculum, a cultural shift that accepts the necessity of institutional, curricular and pedagogical transformation, and partnerships and collaboration with industry and other universities.

All this is easier said than done, but it is essential if higher education is to be the kind of dynamic and inclusive driver of innovation that this society needs.

It’s very easy, at this moment, to be depressed about the state and fate of this nation’s campuses. When I read the higher ed press, all I see are seemingly insurmountable challenges involving costs, grade inflation, declining academic standards and campus divisiveness.

But instead of getting caught up in the moment, look to the future that my students are already encountering. This is a future in which advanced mathematics and data analytics, the frontiers of engineering, science, and technology, heightened interest in sustainability and equity, and fresh insights into human psychology and the sociology of organizations and group and individual behavior are creating radically innovative fields of study.

Follow the example of Eugene Gant in Thomas Wolfe’s 1929 debut novel Look Homeward, Angel—the most poetic work of fiction ever written by an American—who, on the book’s last page, stands on a hill above his hometown and turns his eyes away from the place where he grew up and looks upward toward the “distant soaring ranges.”

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational, and Equitable Experience.

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