We Must Own Our Own Futures

Colleges will have to deal with significant changes in the coming decades, predicts John D. Simon -- changes that can be categorized as the Great Decline, the Great Unknowing and the Great Unbundling.

September 24, 2019
 
 
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We find ourselves at a precarious time in the history of higher education. Politicians and the public are increasingly questioning the value of what we do. The cost of education is rising while a population with greater need for financial aid is growing. Research and teaching are becoming more globalized at the same time that international collaboration is under scrutiny. And technological innovation is rapidly transforming the very definitions and methods of teaching and learning.

As a sector, all of us in higher education must be to be able to adapt to the changing needs of our institutions and the larger society in which those institutions exist. The changes I see coming in the next decades fall into three categories: the Great Decline, the Great Unknowing and the Great Unbundling. Even more important than anticipating these changes will be responding to them not as challenges but as opportunities.

The Great Decline

College and university leaders face difficult demographic headwinds at the undergraduate level. According to data that education expert Nathan D. Grawe analyzes in Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, between the years 2025 and 2030, the number of native-born children reaching college age is expected to decline by approximately 650,000 (on a base of around 4.5 million) -- a decline of over 14 percent. And we have no particular reason to expect, amid that decline, that the numbers of people choosing -- and able -- to attend four-year colleges and universities will remain steady if we are unable to serve the needs of an increasing proportion of those students.

When it comes to attracting applicants, higher education must pay attention to such shifting demographics. Of course, just getting students to apply isn’t enough. Across the higher education ecosystem, we must establish stronger support infrastructures to ensure that students succeed after they arrive on our campuses.

At Lehigh University, we are making progress on this front, although, admittedly, we still have much more work to do. Our recently appointed vice president of equity and community has created the Center for Student Access and Success, designed to increase access for all groups that are currently underrepresented at the university, with a focus on first-generation and lower-income students. A key goal is to ensure that support systems are in place to enable all students to have enriching and successful experiences. For example, our Mentor Collective is a peer mentorship program that begins during the summer and is designed to help first-year students make the most of their college experience. Our High-Impact Experience Opportunity Fellowship provides our first-generation, low-income and other underrepresented student populations greater access to educational experiences beyond the classroom -- including study abroad and other global experiences, career and professional development, research, community engagement, internships, and leadership development.

The Great Decline also encompasses challenges related to recruiting top global graduate student talent. The number of American students now seeking, and who will soon seek, graduate degrees is limited -- particularly in science and technology fields. And two related geopolitical forces are at play that can cause international student enrollments to decline significantly: first, increased political tension, especially with China, could directly alter the student visa landscape and the desirability of the United States as a destination for Chinese students. And concerns about Chinese government use of American universities’ open intellectual environments as sources of competitive economic advantage and assertion of soft power could give rise to further restrictions. The U.S. Congress, intelligence agencies and research funding agencies are all heightening their attention to this latter issue.

A second, longer-term force at play is the growth of colleges and universities around the globe and the resulting reduction in the assured pre-eminence of the United States as a destination for study. In short, world-class research is becoming globalized. While in the past, American colleges and universities could safely count on large numbers of highly capable students aspiring to work with their graduate faculties, those students now have more choices. And their choices may come with differences that matter in postdoctorate career opportunities. When it becomes easier for a recent Ph.D. graduate to launch a start-up in India, or China, or Singapore, our circumstances in the United States fundamentally change.

Small adaptations are unlikely to be sufficient. As we confront the future, some questions we might ask ourselves include: What do we provide our students that is essential and irreplaceable? (A hint: it is not transmission of readily packaged content.) What about other stakeholders? What do we provide, or could we provide, to those who rely upon our knowledge-generation capacities and our impacts on host communities? More fundamentally, what do our students and our stakeholders need most from us going forward? This last question brings us to the Great Unknowing.

The Great Unknowing

The Great Unknowing relates to all that is unknown for our students. The pace of change in the workplace has increased to a point where they will need to be able to adapt to rapid shifts in the workplace and in society and to become adept at learning even totally new fields. In addition, today’s graduates will probably work longer than boomers or millennials. We as higher education leaders no longer know the demands various professions will make of our students over their lifetimes -- or what the requirements for success will be.

Moreover, as opportunities become increasingly global, our students may not know where -- in what city, even in what country -- they will create their lives. And for many students, success will be measured more by team contributions than solo accomplishments. Such teams will likely include members from around the globe, and they will draw on the knowledge of multiple disciplines and cultures. In other words, how work gets done will change in ways we can’t fully predict.

The prospect of such fundamental change suggests a few things we should deeply consider. It means change in how many professions are organized -- and that addressing the knowledge and experiences required for success may often outpace our current processes for revising our curriculum and core requirements. It means we should question fixed views of what a person needs to know to function in any given profession. It also means instilling in our students the same taste for ambiguity and gravitation toward the unknown that animates our scholars. It means enhancing the opportunities for purposeful experiential learning. And it almost certainly means embracing the Great Unbundling.

The Great Unbundling

Our students will need to know how to continually learn, and educational institutions will have to remain flexible in response to that need. The generation currently known as Alphas, those born beginning in 2010, will arrive on our campuses in less than 10 years. In addition to being the most technologically savvy generation, Alphas are the children of millennials who experienced college as an incredible expense -- and often a source of significant debt. The very concept of “unbundling” education -- access to education in modular form, one career step at a time -- comes from those millennial parents.

The millennials are the people who, during their early work careers, appear to need to continually navigate the repeatedly disrupted workplace of today and of the coming decades. Many are doing so by credentialing themselves with postcollege certificates, mostly from online programs. Elite colleges and universities now increasingly offer such certificate programs, not just the for-profit institutions that predominantly did so in the past.

In fact, for those millennial parents, lifelong learning is a given. Their goal will be to equip their children, the Alphas, in a cost-effective fashion, so that they can gain a foothold in a career. Precarity -- the absence of any real assurance of one’s station in society -- will be a continuing concern for these parents and their children. They will look for what provides a sound start and equips them to move on with at least a reasonable assurance of success.

The drive to unbundle may necessitate new approaches. Consistent with liberal education traditions, and with existing catalogs of graduate offerings, we can fully dispense with the idea that a student is done upon graduation. It also suggests that we at four-year residential research universities should revisit and recommit to what we do that isn’t captured in componentized, knowledge- and skill-centric educational pathways. It seems clear that badges in data analytics are valuable. But what about the responsibilities that come with a rarefied education? Creativity and ethical action? The capacity to understand and respect different cultures? Productive collaboration? The ability to recognize the ways in which society’s problems are new and the ways in which they are 1,000 years old?

We in higher education can offer the relentless pursuit of knowledge and the richness of collaboration across disciplinary lines. Our intellectual independence and our ability to pose questions without fear of the answers makes us indispensable in a society that depends not only upon technological advancement but also on reason, perspective, open discourse and an appreciation of history.

Such offerings will be of far more enduring value than course schedules and curricula. As change occurs around us, the imperatives for change in how we go about our work will grow. Amid that change, our priority -- right alongside doing the best by our students and stretching ourselves in our scholarship -- should be on becoming universities intent on owning our own futures.

Bio

John D. Simon is president of Lehigh University.

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