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Education Trends

Envisioning the Future of Higher Ed in a Post-pandemic World

In a recent ASU+GSV session, five college presidents gave their views of what’s next for higher education.

crystal ball

What does the future of higher education look like? A panel of five university and college presidents offered their crystal-ball visions in a recent session during the recent ASU+GSV Summit, which took place online this week. Moderator Michelle Marks, chancellor of the University of Colorado Denver, asked panelists — each representing a unique higher education model — to look forward five years and beyond.

More Embedded Tech as a Given

For Eloy Oakley, chancellor of California Community Colleges, the largest system of public education in the country with 116 colleges and more than 2 million students, teaching and learning will certainly have more embedded technology. "Prior to the pandemic, we had been in a long and sometimes contentious conversation about how we leverage technology more. How do we help our faculty, reach more students, be more effective, gather more data about our students? And of course, there was a lot going on about whether or not we could ever do that," he said. "Well, here we are. We've advanced five years in a matter of five months in the use of technology. And that's something that we have to hold on to."

Oakley's hope is to use the current shift to online learning as a "steppingstone" to reach more adult learners. "States like California have had such a huge unemployment and underemployment of our adult worker population, and many of those jobs are not coming back. How do we leverage this opportunity to move students along, to help more individuals get back into the economy, and to ensure that our state remains prosperous?" That's a mission, he added, "that we've always been about. The question now is [can we] approach that mission very differently and be able to reach more students?"

More People, Lower Cost

Broader outreach and faster impact will also be at the heart of private liberal arts education too, suggested Carol Quillen, president of Davidson College, a 2,000-student, largely residential college outside of Charlotte, NC. "Those of us who are these traditional residential institutions have finally kind of caught up to looking at the challenge that we face as a sector, which is how do we educate more people at a lower cost more quickly and with a clear sense of the value of what we're doing?" she noted. "In five years, all of us will have a clearer sense of the role that we play in that broader project and that institutions like Davidson and many others will serve a broader range of learners in very different ways, as we continue to differentiate the sector and strive to ensure equity for all learners."

Continuous Skilling Beyond Degrees

"Continuous skilling" will play a big role in the college of the future, predicted Peter Cohen, president of the University of Phoenix, with 87,000 students, "largely working adults, largely moms with dependents already in their career and looking to get ahead." While the university is known for its online programs, it also operates 30 campuses around the country serving 5,000 students, all of whom were moved to online classes during the pandemic. "More than 85 percent of students come to the university in order to get a better job or get a better career," he said. "When you think about what the real responsibility of the university is, it's to help those people progress in their career. And we know that as we move forward with the changes in technology and the changes in jobs, those careers are going to change over time. The idea that you go to school once when you're young and you have the skills you need for life — long gone."

Cohen expects that serving those adult learners will go well beyond degrees: "You might need a certificate or a badge or a competency or skill. I see us and other universities in the future expanding their offerings to be better aligned to what industry is looking for — the sort of bursts of learning that allow people to get those promotions and new jobs that they need." For that reason, he said, his own institution is "doubling down on the concept of career services, on the idea that we have to serve you pre-enrollment, helping you understand what career might be available for you, giving you the skills you need to get started in that career, continuing to work with you throughout your career in order to get you upskilled until you decide to retire."

More Systematic Thinking

Ben Nelson embraces a different mandate for higher ed that deflects the emphasis on certifying somebody "to get a job." Nelson is chairman and CEO of Minerva, a global college in which students live in residential settings in one of four international cities (San Francisco, Berlin, London and Seoul) and take all courses online. "That's fundamentally flawed logic," he said, "because the reality is — and we all know this — none of our formal education trained us for the context situations and challenges that we deal with every single day. What trains people to be ready is the learning of wisdom, how to actually encounter a novel situation, a novel context, and draw upon lessons from other areas appropriately." As he explained, to enable a student "to think systematically means that you not only have to rethink on a radical basis the curricular approach to university but also it means that you have to constantly learn and improve and change it." For that reason, Nelson said, "Five years from now, I hope that Minerva will be unrecognizable from the Minerva of today, simply because the educational advancement of what we offer will be so radically different."

Uniquely Equipping Students to "Answer this Moment"

David Thomas, president of Morehouse College, showed a similar perspective as Minerva but with a more pressing undercurrent. Morehouse is an Historically Black College and University, and the largest school in the country "dedicated solely to the education of men." (The most well-known graduate was Martin Luther King.) Current enrollment is about 2,200 students. Like Nelson, Thomas observed that a focus on career-readiness loses "the opportunity to shape the values and create a place where students can develop a vision for the kind of world that they want to create."

Unlike the University of Phoenix with its typical adult learner, Morehouse educates 18- to 23-year-olds "who are in the process of answering fundamental questions of: Who am I? Who can I be in the world? What does the world owe me?" The focus, Thomas said, "has to be on creating citizens." Morehouse students have been at the forefront of protests and mobilizations around the needs of communities of color around the country, focusing on food insecurity and housing, which is, Thomas said, "very much at the heart of the DNA of Morehouse around nonviolent social advocacy." Those activities have led to "a reinvigoration of our community and our students' understanding about how they're uniquely equipped to answer this moment," Thomas added.

Yet, where the college hasn't been focused is on the concept of lifelong learning. "Now that we have had to move into the 21st century and embrace the power of technology to stay in business, [we need] to expand our reach. Given what's going on in our society, [there are] so many areas where the distinctive values that Morehouse wraps its education around can be extended as students engage in lifelong learning," Thomas said. As an example, he mentioned how the National Football League sought a school it could partner with in the wake of the Colin Kaepernick-national anthem controversy, where players and executives could learn about nonviolent social advocacy "to turn that controversy into real change." The league chose to work with Morehouse. "There are lots of other sectors that are asking those same questions. Now because we can leverage technology, we can take that to the world, along with our programs in business and bioinformatics and all those kinds of things," he proposed.

Expectations for Change

U Colorado Denver Chancellor Marks pressed panelists to "fast-forward to 2030" and offer thoughts on what they expected and hoped would change or not change, "for better or worse."

More Partnering

For Morehouse's Thomas, the answer was simple: partnering with other institutions, "rather than seeing them simply as the competition." As he explained, "For small liberal arts colleges like mine, we will have reckoned with the fact that by ourselves, we cannot do everything that our students need." Schools will need to "leverage our various distinctive competencies to create new ways to serve the society that we're going to enter into," he said. "[For] the world we're moving into, half the jobs that exist today won't exist by 2050, and we don't know what the new ones will be. Coming together to address that will aid us."

Education as a Public Good

Davidson's Quillen said she hopes to see broader consensus on the belief "that education is a public good, for which we all bear some responsibility." That will probably require a change in the relationship between how the federal government and higher ed interacts. That "could go either way," she noted. What Quillen hopes never changes is the "inherent and often-mocked idea that education is actually liberating. Education is about developing in people skills that are transferable precisely because they derive from the cultivation of deeply human capacities which we all share." As she asserted, "We will lose the power of education and learning as liberating if we succumb to the idea that it's always about the next job."

Lower Cost and Greater Focus on Outcomes

U Phoenix's Cohen said his hope is twofold: that the cost of tuition will come down and that institutions will be judged not on "their tax status" but "on their outcomes." "If you leverage technology, whether it's on the student side [with] artificial intelligence or around the back-office side with robotic process automation, you can lower the cost of education, to allow it to be affordable for more people." As a result, he noted, "You won't have to rely on the federal government subsidies as much as we do today."

Need to Shift Away from "Monoculture" Ed

Minerva's Cohen cautioned against a "society of monoculture education," where national governments “dictate what's to be learned." In spite of the diversity of educational models in higher ed, that's exactly what he thinks will happen. "We are actually self-homogenizing as a sector," he said. "You look at most curricula at most universities — they're exactly the same .... The fundamental approaches, the sequences of courses are not only the same, they're also curated the same." Because of that, he suggested, "the degradation of rigor has which has been occurring for 50 years will continue to accelerate." Cohen's hope is that a decade from now a growing number of institutions "will stand against those trends, will have very distinct educational philosophies with a well-thought-through curriculum of extraordinarily high academic rigor that will focus on actual learning outcomes."

Finding Access Everywhere

California Community Colleges' Oakley had the last word: that democratization in access to education will win out. "Things like the degree will no longer hold sway," he said. "Competencies, opportunities will hold power. And so that's going to force us in higher education to rethink how we're organized [and] what we value." His hope: "that we will be talking about how every person on the planet has access to what we have to offer today."

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