The (Highly Uncertain) Future of Higher Education

Some years ago, I was a panelist at the Microsoft Research Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on the topic of the future of higher education. My comments were to the effect that the future for private K-12 schools was bright while the future for most colleges was highly uncertain. Nothing in the intervening years has led me to alter this view.

Private K-12 schools certainly face their share of challenges, among them demographic and financial shifts that necessitate innovative responses. Yet their fundamental paradigm of providing nurturing attention to children in small classroom settings will continue to hold value for parents. Children will always benefit from more and richer individuated interaction with caring adults.

The ongoing value proposition of most colleges is much less clear. Assured placement into professional jobs that provide higher lifetime earnings? That is an increasingly difficult, if not impossible, proposition to demonstrate. The most certain and prestigious certification for professional training? Perhaps for now, yes, but that might soon change.

We have seen tremendous progress in the quality of online education. Ten years ago, the experience of taking a course online was clunky and inconvenient, heavy on textuality and the sheer mechanics of completing assignments and low on the pleasure of interactive learning. Today, online classes are much more intuitive and convivial. What’s more, the ongoing learning curve of educators offering online study, the expansion of number and types of institutions offering such opportunities, the concomitant increase in investment and development of online learning tools, and the ever-accelerating increases in speed and bandwidth of data streaming all give every reason to suppose that the next ten years will see even greater inflection toward organic and intuitive collaborative interfacing between teachers and students in the online learning environment. The implications could be revolutionary—and, for many colleges, disastrous.

Colleges and universities as we know them today, of course, emerged in the Middle Ages as students gathered around the handful of manuscripts and learned professors who began to cluster in centers of learning such as Padua, Bologna, and Paris. In the 19th century, the model of universities as major research institutions similarly emerged out of the need for centrality and ease of access to thinkers and printed texts in those settings. Today, thought leaders and books alike are increasingly accessible via the cloud from even the remotest corners of the planet.

We are already witnessing the emergence of educational credentials that are earned by completing discrete modules of learning and practice through web-based products. Increasingly, it will be possible to earn innumerable “badges” of training and accomplishment offered online by companies and online educational institutions. Some of these will emerge as quite rigorous, competitive, and, significantly, prestigious, with virtual “student bodies” spanning the globe.

Let’s jump ahead, then, to a scenario some years hence, in which all these elements come together—when a college-aged student can earn prestigious certification via online learning and training programs that are highly interactive, engaging, and intuitive. They also cost far less than traditional college classes, because the institutions offering them don’t have the high overhead costs of brick-and-mortar infrastructure or of tenured professors. When these online offerings begin to carry social and economic cachet among the general public and employers that is comparable to education at typical colleges, middle-class families will opt for them in droves.

Compare a middle-class family that pays for an adult student to go off to four years of college to earn a degree and becomes saddled with debt to a family whose adult student lives at home, works at least part-time to earn an income and gain professional experience during those same four years, and takes on-line courses that provide credentials that are as well regarded by employers as college classes but that cost pennies on the dollar. Most middle-class families would balk at purchasing a traditional college education just so their daughter or son can have an extended adolescence when the tangible benefits are comparable and the costs are so divergent between these two scenarios.

This is not to say that all universities will disappear. I once shared this analysis over a dinner with the Chancellor of Oxford University, Chris Patten, who retorted, “Well, you’re probably right about eighty or ninety percent of colleges, but people will always want to come to Oxford to chat!” Lord Patten was right, of course, and the highly resourced schools such as Oxford can probably continue to exist on their endowments and reputation virtually regardless of the demand curve. But I would not want to be a president today of any college outside that top, empyrean circle of elite institutions.

What this means for pedagogy must be the subject of a future blog, but I am confident that the value of private K-12 education is insulated from these vortices that threaten to shake our centuries-old college paradigm to its core. Ten, twenty, thirty years from now, private schools will still be providing personalized, child-centered teaching in small classroom settings led by nurturing educators in a way that no alternative can match for children at younger ages.

Jim Tracy is Head of School at Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, RI.

One thought on “The (Highly Uncertain) Future of Higher Education

  1. Susan Wood

    To simply add upon your insightful trend in online learning and courses increasing viability is this current generation’s use of available devices for information. Having the answer instantly at student fingertips is common practice. Online courses will feel normal to them. Institutions will also need to transform, accommodating students desire to seek courses not offered on campus and proper credit for doing so. Change is inevitable. When businesses start making it clear what they want from their workforce in terms of fundamentals, hopefully the appropriate training will catch up with the demand and times.

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