Originally published on InContext, a Lexmark website.
It is generally accepted that we are living through a major inflection point in higher education. Challenges from technology, demographics, policy and popular attitudes are casting doubt on many components of colleges and universities. Above all, campuses and systems face threats to their sustainability due to lack of finances.
So what might the future of higher education look like? I can see four possible scenarios of what higher education could look like in the year 2026.
Peak higher education
What would campuses look like if the current decline in enrollment continues?
America’s K-12 population is no longer growing, and is in decline in many states. This means less traditional-age undergraduates are entering into higher education. Those who do graduate are more burdened by debt than any prior generation, having come of age during the worst economic crisis of the past 80 years. And, as a result, this generation is delaying childbirth, making it likely the next generation will also be small in numbers.
Recent anti-academic attitudes including fears of escalating tuition and skepticism about post-secondary education could strengthen the enrollment decline. We are also seeing a renewed interest in skilled trades, which dropped over the past generation. We could begin to see would-be students take that route as an alternative to traditional higher education.
A decade of such a decline would have certain effects on American higher education. The reduction in the total number of students would mean less populated campuses, or even fewer institutions. The number of full-time faculty would likely shrink, as adjuncts teach classes, or classes are eliminated entirely. Administrations would expand current levels of international recruitment making campuses much more diverse. Campus leaders may also recruit more extensively from adult learners and less prepared students; which would likely mean expanding student support programs and remedial classes.
Health care nation
How would campuses change if healthcare becomes the leading engine of the American economy?
American health care is already a massive economic presence, employing huge numbers. On campus, it’s no stretch of the imagination to envision a larger presence of medical and allied healthcare in the undergraduate curriculum. If today’s tendency for life sciences to have an abundance of female participants, the student body (and educators) would become even more populated by women. At the same time, related STEM disciplines, such as robotics and chemistry, would grow, as would classes with medical tie-ins, such as health care finance and medical ethics.
Campuses would need to institute greater technological infrastructure to share the proliferation of data. And, unless present-day financial constraints lift, this could necessitate reducing other campus offerings, such as the humanities and social sciences. The physical plant of a campus could also change, as more students spent more time in clinics and hospitals.
Tutor me, Siri
What happens to colleges and universities in an age of advanced automation?
Let us resist radically disruptive and unforeseen technologies and only focus on the possibilities present in current automation achievements and trends. By 2026, we should expect software capable of mimicking some functions currently performed by humans, such as competent tutoring.
Given the availability of more advanced artificial intelligence (AI) and the clear hunger for its use, we can anticipate a steady growth in the number of jobs and job functions outsourced to computers. If human creativity does not make up new jobs to replace these, we may expect a steady rise in unemployment. Alternatively, we could see more employees working as “cyborgs,” integrated with AIs in doing jobs together.
The rise of automation (robots and AI) should be accompanied by serious expansion in relevant fields: computer science, robotics, mechanical engineering and mathematics. More challenging, we could see the appearance of scholarly automation as AIs learn to assess the scholarly record. Imagine seeing software appear as a scientific paper’s co-author? How would this change our sense of what research means?
Financially pressed institutions might outsource curriculum to apps, instead of hiring teaching staff. Enrollments might drop if would-be students view software as a competitive choice to a university. In line with the rest of the workforce, cyborg instructors might become the norm, each faculty member relying heavily on a mix of digital tools to provide students with content, testing, analytics; making a software suite desirable, and then required, for faculty positions.
Keep on keeping on
What would American higher education look like if no major changes occur?
We can imagine colleges and universities fighting hard to maintain current practices, drawing on institutional conservativism to preserve policies and tradition. It is possible no major social transformation occurs over the next decade.
The social context would be marked by higher income inequality, roughly on a par with America circa 1900. Demographics would reveal a more multiracial America, as the white population declines as a proportion from K-12 schools would be marked more deeply by class and race than they are in 2016.
The gradual reduction in per-student state support of public colleges and universities would reach low levels, perhaps driving some institutions to exit their state systems entirely and become private. The rest would become privatized, largely dependent on tuition and gifts for survival. A small group of the most well-endowed campuses would see their wealth increase, and pull away from the rest of American higher education with these schools becoming more transnational than they are in today, given the growth of international students and campus units abroad.
The student population over the age of 40 would grow. A rising number of classes and programs might be aimed at the booming senior population. The number of non-teaching and non-research staff would keep increasing, leading to further charges of administrative bloat. Tenure, having been in decline since 1980, would be rare because most faculty would be adjuncts, assessed and compensated on a per-class or per-hour basis.
Technology on campus would only change incrementally, consistent with this scenario’s conservative structure. Given trends of multiple devices (phone, tablet, laptop, personal trackers, networked objects) we should expect a larger number of machines for campus IT to support. Similarly software progress indicates a greater variety of tools to be understood, expected and supported by the community. Each technology user will generate a large amount of data, which the institution collects, analyzes and preserves. The historical shift of media user habits from passive consumption to active creation suggests a recasting of students as content producers, their artifacts (essays, reports, videos, posters, animations, datasets, etc.) also needing some degree of institutional curation.
The future’s so bright
Imagine your school under the influence of each of these scenarios. What choices would become available and what options would be constrained? What can you do now to prepare for the future? Do you envision any additional scenarios impacting higher education in the next decade?