10 Higher Education Trends to Watch in 2015 & Beyond

Thanks to the University of Wisconsin Madison Department of Educational Policy Studies and the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education (WISCAPE), I enjoyed sharing a draft paper and informal comments yesterday on When For-Profit and Non-Profit Meet: Monopolists, Entrepreneurs and Academics in Higher Education. I might be able to share a polished version of that paper at some point, but driving back from the event, I realized that I have failed to share my predictions post for this current year, something that I’ve done each year since 2012. So, five months into the year, here goes. I’ve decided to focus this list mainly on higher education trends and innovations, although some of them have parallels in the K-12 sector. These do not necessarily reflect the paper or comments shared in the mentioned presentation, but there is certainly some overlap.

Which trends should we watch in the second half of 2015 and beyond? This represents one of the more common types of questions people ask me. Which trends in education are most noteworthy? Which ones will persist and grow? Which ones will fade and wither? I try to add an important disclaimer when I step into a futurist role, even the near future, because education is one of those deeply political and regulated sectors, adding plenty of uncertainties in any claims. Nonetheless, here is my short list of ten. None of them are new, but I expect them to gain increased attention into the second half of 2015 and well beyond this year. Or, in some cases, look for interesting pivots or adjustments in these areas.

Customized / Personalized Programming

Some  higher education institutions are not positioned to respond to this growing request. As such, this is a promising opportunity for the more agile colleges and universities, continuing education units, as well as a range of education companies interested in providing training, courses, or educational opportunities. What I’m referring to here is the idea of a company or organization partnering with a University or an education company to create and offer custom training, courses, degrees, or programming. It might be a partnership to create a custom leadership training program for those who show promise in a given company. It might be a business school that offers a special cohort MBA program for a given employer, agreeing to integrate case studies and other elements that are directly related to that company. It might be a school district partnering with a college to design professional development (for credit or more) that helps teachers pursue specific district goals for improving student learning. There are so many possibilities. While this is not new, this approach is gaining more attention. A growing number of Universities are showing the interest and willingness to pursue these partnership. At the same time, we see existing education companies ramping up their capacity for these services as well as startups that specialize in such a model. For the latter, it isn’t the type of model that gains extensive interest from investors because such personalization sometimes prevents the scaling that leads to the payoffs they are seeking. As such, this leaves ample opportunity for willing colleges and Universities along with boutique education businesses.

Educational Partnerships

I’ve already written about the Starbucks / ASU partnership, but this is just the beginning. Expect to see several other high-profile announcements of similar partnerships over the next couple of years. Also scan the growing size of offices in Universities dedicated to building external partnerships. For the colleges, this helps them save marketing dollars, and sometimes allows them to pass that savings on the the students. For the employers, they have an employee perk to keep good talent, and raise up the next group of leaders by investing in their education. The PR for both sides doesn’t hurt either.

Big Data & Business Analytics in Education

Advancement wants it. Admission wants it. Marketing wants it. Professional advising staff wants it. More higher education leaders are interested in dashboards that give them a snapshot of the University status regarding key performance indicators. As blended and online learning grows, there are also more data points about student and faculty behavior that are recorded and can be mined. This world of informatics and analytics is growing quickly, and it is a massive money maker for software providers. Consider how some healthcare systems are paying a quarter of a billion dollars or more for implementations of new informatics systems. While not typical at that price point, Universities have already started investing hundreds of thousands (sometimes millions) to implement data warehouses and analytic software. I don’t expect it to gain as much traction among faculty in the classroom this year, expect where there is experimentation with adaptive learning and the like, but that will potentially come within the next 2-4 years.

Alternative Education Meets Higher Education

I’m probably a little early on this one, but I still expect to see signs of it over the next 12-24 months. What I’m referring to is a form of what we’ve seen happening with independent schools, charter schools and magnet schools on the K-12 level. We see project-based schools, classical schools, self-directed learning academics, place-based learning schools, leadership academies, etc. I expect to see an equivalent emerge in the higher education space. Look for more colleges and Universities offering niche routes (sort of like the already existent honors colleges at some schools, but focused on niche approaches like project-based learning, service-learning, even self-directed learning. In addition, while this is not nearly as easy of a development, I expect to see the announcement of at least a few new higher education institutions over the next 1-2 years that have interesting niches and approaches, schools like Minerva or more long-standing schools like Antioch College, Bennington College, Goddard College and Prescott College.

Virtual Reality in Education 

This one will probably gain more traction on the k-12 level in 2015, but look for it to make a few headlines in higher education in 2015 and 2016 as well, especially given that some of the software is starting to catch up with the hardware in this industry. Events like the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality Conference will give us a glimpse into near future uses in higher education.

The Rise of Higher Education Beyond Regionally Accredited Entities

As we continue to see the Department of Education and regional accrediting bodies trying to make sense of the developments and innovations in higher education, it puts innovation Universities at a disadvantage, especially the smaller to mid-sized schools. As a result, we will see foundations giving even more interest to education companies that are not bound by things like the federal financial aid system or regional accreditation. Expect more announcements from new and existing companies that provide courses, training, credentials, and “degrees” of their own; but not part of the standard regionally accredited higher education system. Many of these will earn their credibility through close connections, conversations and sometimes formal partnership with employers and professional organizations that oversee credentials for a given trade or field of work.

MOOC Credentials

We’ve heard a little bit about it in the past, and while I’m still not one to jump on the claims that MOOCs will make traditional higher education obsolete, this year and next will be the time when we see the growth of credentials (certificates, badges, etc.) and even traditional college credit being associated with learning demonstrated through MOOCs. Coursera and EdX are already engaged with this to some extent, but expect other players and for credentials from these sources to be refined, expanded, and gaining more traction. It should probably go without stating that there will be tension and push back on this one.

Competency-based Education

The Competency-based Education Network accepted its second group of 30 schools into the network in 2015 (I work at one of the new member schools). Beyond that network, I’m also directly aware of countless schools that have moved from interest to formal exploration, experimentation, and even implementation of competency-based programming. The scope of this trends impact will surprise many in higher education.

Self-Directed Learning

The most attention to this topic will continue to come beyond the walls of formal higher education. However, interest in self-directed learning is a natural progression of the digital revolution, driven by a combination of increased access to online content, resources, communities, etc; as well as education companies targeting “learners” with apps, services, and resources that allow them to reach formal and informal learning goals.

Self-Blended Learning

This is essentially self-directed learning finding its way in the formal learning environment. As more resources for learning emerge online and college students become further informed about them; we will continue to see creative and unexpected student-led “blends” used to help them find success in school and to achieve personal goals that are not being adequately supported by the formal college experience.

There are plenty of other trends that are likely to grow and expand, but I’m confident that these ten are here to stay. Expect to see them in more headlines, to learn about new products and services focused upon them, and for them to become more common aspects of higher education discourse.

Who Benefits from the The #ASUonline / #Starbucks Partnership?

While there were many highlights from the 2015 ASU+GSV Summit, for me it was the interview with Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University and Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks. Nearing a year into their widely touted partnership, the two came together at the Summit to retell the story of the partnership, the vision, and possibilities for the future.

In case you’ve missed the media over the past ten months, in 2014 Arizona State University online and Starbucks announced a partnership that provided a discounted tuition to Starbucks employees around the globe. When a student successfully completes a certain number of credits, that student gets a full reimbursement…with no strings attached. While partnerships between Universities are nothing new, many are more about equipping employees with skills related to their current work, but that is not the focus of the ASU/Starbucks deal.

Both agreed that their partnership was not simply about workforce development. This was not a partnership focused exclusively on a University helping a company better or further equip employees. Instead, Shultz cast a vision for how a publicly held company can help people pursue their life goals. This is a no-strings-attached perk for Starbucks employees. The partnership covers the tuition and employee are free to stay or leave Starbucks upon completion of the degree. This is a University/company model that doesn’t simply treat the employee as a human resource to help increase shareholder value. Indeed, the employees do that, but Shultz has demonstrated a commitment to investing in the quality of life for employees beyond simple measures of increasing shareholder wealth. This was demonstrated with a 350 million dollar investment in healthcare for employees (an amount that Shultz mentioned far exceeds what they pay for coffee in a decade), along with this newer 250 million dollar investment in the educational goals and broader aspirations of current employees.

According to Michael Crow, their vision is not for this single partnership to transform society. However, he is hopeful that other “value-driven Universities and value-driven companies” will do the same thing. They are establishing an exemplar for other Universities and companies on the public good of investing in human potential. Ultimately, this is about something bigger than the well-being of a single company. This is a for-profit business embracing social entrepreneurship.

Increasing shareholder wealth remains a critical part of Starbucks, as it does for all public companies. With that in mind, how does such a partnership fit? A $250 million dollar investment in the education of employees is well over double what Starbucks spent on advertising in 2013. There is no question that the media coverage from such a partnership strengthened the already robust company brand, but it might be a challenge to suggest that there is an evident and solid financial return on this effort. This is simply about more than the bottom line. As best as I can tell, this is about a set of core values, about defining and living out a social vision for the company.

What about ASU? What benefits do they get from this partnership? That one is easier to see. I’ve not reviewed financials to discover how much ASU spends on marketing for their online programs, but online recruitment is an expensive endeavor, with some online programs putting well beyond 20% of tuition toward marketing and recruiting new students. As such, a partnership like this allows a University to contribute what looks like a generous tuition discount without losing money on the deal. In essence, the partnership provides a stream of students and gets an amazing brand like Starbucks to market the ASU program from within the company. There is immense value in that. As such, a partnership like this makes it possible for a University to contribute a discount directly to students instead of having to spend that same money on marketing.

What is next for this partnership? They didn’t discuss this much in the interview, but Michael Crow certainly took the opportunity to give a glimpse into how efforts like this partnership represent a larger vision for ASU. He stated that higher education has “reached its maximum in its current form. The only way forward is through innovations like college completion and lifelong education” through modes like online learning. It is time, according to Crow, for us to “move beyond the notion that college is something that you do between the age of 17 and 22” (if you happen to come from a wealthy enough background). Crow knows the stats as well as anyone. That population of traditional college age residential students is the minority in higher education today, and there is every indication that the “non-traditional” learner will continue to become the norm. With this in mind, Crow continued with a challenge. “Who is willing to step out and start evolving the next form of higher education?” ASU is stepping up to the challenge, and we see countless others stepping forward as well; not to mention the many startups and education companies that are not officially labeled as “higher education providers” but are actively offering products and services that were once limited to traditional learning organizations. Welcome to the digital-age learning revolution.