Higher education was transformed in the 19th and 20th centuries to meet the needs of an emerging national, analog, industrial economy. Today, higher education is again being transformed -- this time to serve the needs of a global, digital, knowledge economy. People fundamentally disagree, however, about what form that transformation will take.
Harvard University president Lawrence Bacow says higher education will incrementally adapt to changing conditions, as it has historically, maintaining its current mission and structure. In contrast, one of its most prominent business school professors, the late Clayton Christensen, argued that the changes will be of such magnitude that they will disrupt higher education as we know it, rendering traditional models obsolete and driving many colleges and universities to bankruptcy.
Which scenario will be the correct one?
We can do better than betting on one or the other, because we can already see the early adaptations and seismic changes that are coming. We can glimpse the future at the margins or edges of higher education right now. There are three places to look.
The first might be called the postsecondary sector that exists beyond traditional colleges and universities. It consists of a hodgepodge of diverse and independent for-profit and nonprofit initiatives, organizations, and programs and services beyond mainstream higher education that have abandoned key elements of traditional higher education practice. They are rejecting time- and place-based education, creating low-cost degrees, adopting competency- or outcome-based education, emphasizing digital technologies, focusing on the growing populations underrepresented in traditional higher education, and offering pioneering subject matters and certifications.
This sector encompasses knowledge organizations, ranging from libraries and museums to corporate media companies. It is booming, both in terms of enrollments and the number of providers seeking to provide cheaper, faster, more accessible and/or more convenient alternatives to traditional institutions.
Another place to look for the future is in new colleges and universities. In times of profound social change, innovative institutions emerge as profoundly different alternatives to mainstream colleges and universities. During the Industrial Revolution, they included the first-ever American research universities such as Johns Hopkins, land-grant colleges such as Cornell University that combined the liberal arts and practical instruction, scientific and technical education at institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Joliet Junior College and other community colleges. They defined the contours of higher education as an industrial nation.
Their contemporary successors are advancing an agenda for a global, digital, knowledge economy. Western Governors University is focusing on competency-based online education that dispenses with measures such as seat-time, allowing learners to move at their own pace. University of the People has slashed the cost of a college education. Purdue University Global represents a merger between for-profit and nonprofit higher education that offers accessibility and affordability under the aegis of a brand-name institution. And we are already seeing virtual community colleges, such as Calbright College, that specialize in upskilling and reskilling certificate programs.
The third place we should look to see what's coming next for higher education is at financially troubled institutions as well as subunits of healthy universities, such as the continuing education units that provide usually short or part-time courses for adults after they have left the formal education system. The financially troubled institutions are desperate; they adopt new approaches to distinguish themselves and become competitive in order to survive. The subunits of otherwise healthy institutions are self-funding, so they must generate revenue and constantly monitor the environment in search of the potential sources of cash. With time, such subunits become part of the core of the institution and infused into mainstream higher education. Perhaps the best known of the breed is College for America at Southern New Hampshire University.
The three sectors are nearly kaleidoscopic in the variety of initiatives they've undertaken. Competency-based programs have shifted the focus of education from seat-time to learning outcomes. New calendars have appeared that abandon semesters and uniform time constraints in favor of time variable education, 24/7 course access, and "just-in-time" instruction. Programs awarding micro-credentials rather than degrees have expanded substantially, particularly those providing "upskilling" and "reskilling."
Meanwhile, new approaches to tuition pricing -- for example, subscriptions or offering the same programs as traditional institutions at far lower prices -- have emerged. Nontraditional partnerships between higher education and for-profits have increased in areas such as boot camps, online program management, and workforce credentialing, as well as in the absorption of for-profit units by universities such as Purdue University and the University of Arizona.
The Transformation to Come
These are not a set of disconnected changes. Taken together, they offer a preview of what the university of the global, digital, knowledge economy is likely to be. Industrial societies standardize time and process in the manner of an assembly line, one of the most successful technologies of industrial age. In contrast, knowledge economies put a premium on standardizing outcomes. Time and process are variable. The university of the emerging era will have to embrace those shifting values. It must be rooted in outcomes rather than time and process. It must on learning rather than teaching. It must be student- rather than faculty-centric.
The initiatives observed at the margins and periphery of higher education move in precisely these directions. They point to a future that is outcome-based, time-independent, digital, individualized, low-cost, and available any time and any place.
Five New Realities
Combined, these trends tell us that, taken as a whole, colleges and universities must brace for five new realities -- none of which are higher education's own making.
#1. New content producers and distributors will continue to enter the marketplace, driving up competition and consumer choice while driving down prices. They will emphasize digital technologies, reject time- and place-based education, create low-cost degrees, offer competency- or outcome-based education, and award nontraditional credentials. Those already in the market include brand-name industry leaders and cultural agencies that are more accessible and convenient, offering a combination of competency- and course-based programs. They are also cheaper and more agile than traditional colleges and universities, which are more likely to experience contractions and closings.
#2. Institutional control of higher education will decrease, and the power of higher education consumers will increase. In a range of knowledge fields -- take, for example, the newspaper, movie, and recording industries -- the advent of the global, digital, knowledge economy multiplied the number of content providers and disseminators and has given consumers choice over the what, where, when, and how of the content they consume. The same will be true of higher education. The digital revolution will put more power in the hands of the learner who will have greater choice about all aspects of their own education.
#3. With near universal access to digital devices and the internet, students will seek from colleges the same things they are getting from the music, movie and newspaper industries. As they do with those industries, students will seek any time, any place accessibility and personalized education that fits their circumstances. College and universities will increasingly have to unbundle their programs and services so students can purchase at affordable prices only what they need or want to buy.
#4. A knowledge economy model based on outcomes will eclipse the industrial era model of higher education based on process. In the future, higher education will focus on the outcomes we want students to achieve -- what we want them to learn -- not how long we want them to be taught. Students don't learn at the same rate, and the explosion of new content being produced by museums, software companies, retailers, and other organizations inside and outside higher education is becoming so heterogeneous that students' academic progress can't be translated into uniform time or process measures. The one common denominator they all share is that they produce outcomes -- whatever students learn as consequence of the experience.
#5. The dominance of time-bound degrees and "just-in-case" education will diminish. Meanwhile, non-degree certifications and "just-in-time" education will increase in status and value. We will see a reset between the value placed on degrees, once highly prized for indicating a level of skill and knowledge to be ready for the future, and "just-in-time" education, which is present-oriented and more immediate. The increasing need for upskilling and reskilling caused by automation, the knowledge explosion, and the pandemic will tilt the balance toward more educational programs that are closely aligned with the labor market and provide certificates, micro-credentials, and badges -- not degrees.
We don't need a Ouija board to speculate on the future of higher education. We can see it unfold before our eyes in work of new education providers outside higher education, the founding of new colleges, and the innovations that troubled and adult-serving institutions are adopting. The kaleidoscopic changes will come into better focus if we look closely and directly at the margins where major changes are already taking place.