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Mapping the future of higher education

DeGarmo Hall

DeGarmo Hall at Illinois State University.

Cemeteries, where ideas have gone to die, are filled with claims over the decades that higher education was headed for a radical transformation or even just significant change. The tombstones all read, “They were wrong. Nothing much changed.” Any claim that this time it’s different must be met with the appropriate level of skepticism.

In the three videos accompanying this brief blog I do argue that to thrive and—for some sectors—to survive over the next few decades higher education must make significant adaptations in the face of changing student markets, demographic tsunamis, tectonic shifts in technology, shifting political landscapes, transformations in the way data is collected and used, and a redefinition of how, when, and where learning can take place.

I think this time is different for higher education because many of these shifts are beyond our control but key to our core mission and business model. It is also the case that should we fail to respond there is a growing cadre of competitors in the credentialing/learning space anxious to eat our lunch.

The three brief videos that accompany this blog are a part of a series mapping the future of Illinois higher education. However, nearly all of what is discussed presents challenges that face all of higher education to different degrees. Illinois, on almost any dimension, reflects national norms.

  • Radically changing student demographics will be a tsunami that threatens institutions across the country but especially in the Midwest and Northeast. Those who continue to lounge on the beach while the waters recede put themselves at risk.
  • Overcoming the stagnation for the last forty years that has made us complicit partners in growing income inequality and inequity is a challenge for all of U.S. higher education if we are to be the engines of social mobility we should be.
  • Recommitting politically to need-based aid that makes college possible for those who otherwise will never have a college opportunity should be a priority for every citizen, college, state, and the nation.
  • Understanding and meeting the needs of a massive, growing, and multifaceted adult learner market will require a systemic change at scale in most of our core functions.
  • Embracing and being accountable for the college to career transition of our graduates will be demanded of all of us.
  • Catching up with the private sector in the use of big data, analytics, and AI is a necessity if we are to address the changing needs of our students with increasingly constrained revenue streams.
  • Learning how to effectively develop and participate in public-private partnerships may be the only way we can accomplish all we need to do given limited revenues. And let’s face it, higher education has historically been viewed as a pretty “prickly” partner by governments, non-profits, and even those in the growing OPM sector.

To successfully engage these challenges we must take Jim Collin’s advice in Built to Last and embrace the genius of the “and” while rejecting the tyranny of the “or.” A good friend of mine once said presciently that the road to education hell was paved with false dichotomies (tyrannical “ors”). They are too many to name here but to call out a few: liberal arts education or career preparation; degrees or workforce relevant credentials; online education or the glory of small face to face seminars; improved access/completion or quality; quality or affordability; and yes, still today sadly, equity or quality/rigor. Are we capable of at least thinking about how to provide expanded and more equitable access/completion and affordable degrees and degrees of high quality and effective preparation of graduates for careers and citizenship?

Let’s at least try to envision what all those “ands” together look like and what it would take to realize that vision.  It is vital we do because as the data presented in these discussions show, today a good college education is more valuable economically and in almost every other way than it ever has been. Its value is growing faster than ever before. The escalation of talent demands in the workforce as automation and AI take full control as well as the growing threats to our democracy require a higher level of quality education for more people than ever before. If we fail, everything is at risk.

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