There is Not One Future of Higher Education: Toward a More Nuanced Conversation

Will MOOCs disrupt higher education? What about online learning or competency-based education? Or, what about alternate credentials like the open badge movement? The more I engage in such questions, the more important it is for me to add adequate detail to better frame the conversation. Higher education is a broad term. It includes community colleges, technical colleges, trade schools, research intensive schools, liberal arts schools, faith-based institutions, for-profit institutions, schools that focus on serving non-traditional or post-traditional adults, etc. It also includes seminaries, graduate schools, distance learning schools, alternative colleges, and dozens of other types of institutions. Then there are many higher education institutions that include several of these under the same name.

Programmatic Distinctions

After looking at these distinctions, we also need to look at the different programs, professions and disciplines. The impact of online learning is different for a performing arts program than a history program. The potential benefits of alternate credentials will have different levels of perceived value for English majors and those in information technology. Similarly, the impact of MOOCs is unlikely to have the same influence on those pursuing college for the social experience as much (or more) than the academics.

Student Goals and Motivations

This is described from another perspective in the 2014 Differentiated University Pantheon Group report by Haven Ladd, Seth Reynolds, and Jeffreny Selingo. They surveyed 3200 American prospective or current college students. Instead of focusing upon traditional demographic data, they examined the reasons for a student’s interest in college. They were able to describe six distinct profiles of students: aspiring academics, coming of age, career starter, career accelerator, industry switcher, and academic wanderer. Each of these represent different motivations, goals and aspirations; leading to varied values about what constitutes their ideal higher education experience. Looking at current and prospective students from this perspective offers a clearer understanding why something like a MOOC, competency-based program, digital badge or online course might have higher or lower value to a given student.

Government, Community, and Business

While the desires and profiles of learners have an enormous impact on the future of higher education, there is also the influence of external stakeholders: government, communities, business. If we look more closely at these influences, we recognize that they do not share a single value in higher education either. Government influences might have a bias toward economic development. Business might be primarily interested in the development of a workforce that meets their varied needs. Community might have a heavy interest in the way that a higher education institution impacts the quality of life. These are too general, but they illustrate the fact that a single future model of higher education is no more likely than it was in the past. There is a reason why we have so many different types of higher education institutions today.

New Education Options

As we look to external influences on higher education, we must also look at the rapid growth of a new education industry. We look at CodeAcademy, General Assembly, Khan Academy, Udemy, new corporate training programs, and the overall increased access to free and open learning experiences online. This goes back to the different profiles of prospective learners, but the development of this new education industry gives each of us more options that ever before. They may not be quick to disrupt medical schools, but they have already established alternate routes into some of the top high-demand jobs of the next decade, jobs like software developers and system administrators.

Financial Models

There are also important financial factors. That which disrupts an expensive but non-exclusive college depending heavily upon tuition will be different from what disrupts a partly state-funded public community college, or an élite school with a massive endowment. There are schools with multiple sources of revenue and others that are almost entirely tuition-dependent. Some schools will struggle to keep their doors open without federal financial aid. Others have already opted out so they have the freedom to pursue different models of education. Such factors, combined with the others listed above, will decide the time it takes for an innovation to impact a school, and whether the school finds it necessary to respond with any urgency. And this is largely focused upon the state of funding in American higher education. If we look at if from a global perspective, we also see models where most or all of the entire enterprise is government funded. Such distinctions are too important to miss when we are looking at the consequence of educational innovations.

The Need for Nuance

None of this is to suggest that higher education as a whole will not be influenced by educational innovations. There is a long and clear history of innovation’s impact on education. At the same time, I suspect that our conversations about the future of higher education will benefit from a  more nuanced word choice. I have been as guilty as many other media outlets in making broad and general comments about the future of higher education in light of emerging innovations. While my comments are often coming from an analysis of a specific type of higher education, I have not always been clear about that fact. The same is true for many articles that we read at Inside Higher Education, The Chronicle, and elsewhere. Such articles make for interesting conversation, but without adding depth and nuance, they fail to give us tools for truly thinking about how to prepare for the future.