Predicting the Death of Higher Education

October 25, 2009

Posted in Higher Ed.

It’s a hot topic. It’s been a hot topic for over a decade now. The dramatic societal and cultural shifts that have come with nearly ubiquitous technology and connectivity have permeated every facet of our lives. We’ve seen how this shift has had dramatic effects numerous industries including music, newspapers, banking, and retail.

The factors that have affected industries don’t simply alter the industries; these factors change the consumers, who then drive the change to industry. With the music industry, increased bandwidth forced the music industry to offer alternatives to buying an entire album for the sake of a single song. Ideally, this would have happened naturally; instead, recording companies had to adapt or watch music piracy continue to grow. The industries shift, and some players are winners and many, many others are losers.

Higher education is at a crossroads; the availability of information and a consumer-centered culture has produced a generation of students who demand more control over their own education.

What Does Traditional Higher Ed Offer?

Is sitting in a classroom for 4 years, listening to lectures, taking tests, reading textbooks, and getting drunk at frat parties the most efficient use of our education dollars? I think not. Dan Croak, A Completely Different Model for Higher Education

What’s the advantage of a traditional undergraduate experience? Is it the campus life? Access to faculty experts or equipment? The strength of a diploma – either the degree or the name on it?

These advantages aren’t so impressive once you throw a hefty price tag on them. The cost of education has outpaced inflation more than 2.5 times and it’s not slowing down. So cost has become a major factor for many students, opening the door to cheaper alternatives and forcing many traditional institutions to compete on financial aid.

Is Traditional Even a Good Education?

The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education. Albert Einstein

How valuable is the education we provide? In industries such as computer science, vocational programs or certifications can be far more valuable in the job market. Occupations are being created faster than colleges can provide majors or even courses. Yet a non-specialized liberal arts degree (e.g., philosophy, literature) can be a very difficult credential when job-seeking.

It’s not that education is all about landing a job – far from it. But many students enter college with the expectation of finding a job. Earlier this year, a recent graduate sued her school because she couldn’t find employment after three months.

With all of the intangibles, how is the quality of an education measured?

Resistance to Change

About eighty-five institutions in the Western world established by 1500 still exist in recognizable forms, with similar functions and with unbroken histories, including the Catholic church, the Parliaments of the Isle of Man, of Iceland, and of Great Britain, several Swiss cantons, and seventy universities. …These seventy universities…are still in the same locations with some of the same buildings, with professors and students doing much the same things, and with governance carried on in much the same ways. Clark Kerr, Postscript 1982, Change, 14(7), 23-31., 1982

What reason is there to change? Top institutions certainly don’t need to compete for applicants. But they must compete for the top students, top faculty, and research dollars. And while these institutions of inertia have survived for hundreds of years, innovative “customer-centric” options arise from the smallest competitors. It may not be immediately obvious, but threats to the status quo are already well-established. They come from empowered consumers who make demands—demands which are being satisfied by non-traditional models.

The Future of Higher Education

James J. Duderstadt, president emeritus of the University of Michigan, heads up the Millennium Project, investigating the future of higher education and developing new models of pedagogy, research, and educational business. He writes:

“…in a single generation following the Civil War, higher education in America changed quite radically: From the colonial colleges to the Humboltdian research university; with the Land Grant Acts creating the great public universities with strong service missions; from enrollments of hundreds to thousands of students; the empowerment of the faculty. Indeed, everything that could change about the university did change during this brief period.”

What form will higher education take in 10, 20, or 50 years? It’s hard to say. Visionaries may paint a picture of decentralization, or of conglomerate collaborations. The residential model may be in jeopardy. A three-year degree may become the norm. Like science fiction, predicting the future is an exercise in imagination; yet many sci-fi authors’ dreams come true.

In 1998, Donald Hanna declared, that “institutions of all types will be more responsive and accessible to their customers, more adaptable in their programs, and more capable of change than they currently are.”

As I wrote in The University of 2030 the solution isn’t to accurately predict the future; the answer is to create a culture of adaptability, innovation, and tolerance for new ideas. So instead of working on what the future might bring, focus on what we can do today. Today, you can work on your culture for the future.