Higher education in the U.S. is facing unprecedented challenges. Long viewed as an engine for success, recent surveys show a partisan erosion in that faith in higher ed. This erosion of trust, coupled with significant demographic shifts and growing costs, are fueling national debates over the purpose, value, and funding of higher education.

In an effort to understand what the next 20 years will hold for higher ed, Blackboard recently released Future Forward: The Next Twenty Years of Higher Education, a series of interviews with American higher education leaders. We asked these leaders to reflect on the last 20 years of U.S. higher education and consider what the next 20 years might hold.

Across the interviews, five themes repeatedly emerged:

1. Our current system is unsustainable and ill-suited for a globally connected world that is constantly changing.

Higher ed has been forced to reckon with a drastically changing digital world. Several prognosticators have predicted widespread closures of institutions. But none of the leaders we interviewed believed the future held massive closures or the disappearance of brick-and-mortar campuses.

They did, however, highlight the inadequate nature of the current system and suggested that the nature of higher education would shift away from a degree-driven pursuit to lifelong learning associated with continuing education.

2. Colleges and universities will have to change their current business model to continue to thrive, boost revenue, and drive enrollment.

Repeatedly our interviewees pointed to demographic shifts and changing markets as threats to the traditional higher ed business model. The University of Maryland University College’s Marie Cini observed that the pace of change in higher education has accelerated to the point that concrete strategic planning has become increasingly difficult. Robert Hansen of UPCEA posited that a new higher education leadership model would need to look more like private industry.

Several interviewees suggested that institutions will be forced to rethink their business model on some fundamental levels. For some, that meant critically evaluating the role of partnerships. For others, that meant finding ways to collaborate with other institutions to share academic programs and faculty.

Another trending change was the need to shift course offerings to include credentials and degree programs more aligned with workforce needs. Texas Tech University’s Justin Louder suggested that institutions would need to find ways to embrace micro-credentialing and badging. Drexel’s Susan Aldridge suggested that workforce preparation and credentialing would fundamentally shift the mission of higher ed from a degree-driven activity to a lifelong pursuit.

However, this elevation of workforce preparation comes with dangers in terms of limiting the focus of education and creating glass ceilings. Pat Schmohl of Quinsigamond Community College discussed the danger of losing sight of the need to educate students to be citizens first and workers second. Amy Laitinen of New America expressed concern that by rushing to have students complete credentials, we risk ignoring whether they translate into a better life for students.

(Next page: 3 more themes on the future of higher ed)

3. Data and the ability to transform that data into action will be the new lifeblood of the institution.

Interviewees agreed that data would be central to all of these transitions. Google’s Chris Jennings reflected on how data allows us to understand the success of a curriculum but also tailor content for individuals. This opportunity was echoed by Northeastern’s Erin Smith who believes data’s ability to identify trends and test hypotheses will be “transformative.”

Several interviewees raised concerns over assuring the privacy and security of student data, and over the possibility for data to be abused. Quinsigamond’s Schmohl reflected on the risk of manipulating data and the need to ensure that a campus works towards a common agenda. Should the dangers prevent us from embracing data? No, but it was clear that understanding data’s risk and limitations is of critical concern.

4. The “sage on the stage” and the “doc in a box” aren’t sustainable; new technologies will allow faculty to shift their focus on the application of learning rather than the acquisition of knowledge.

While none of the interviewees viewed technology as a silver bullet, several proposed that certain technologies could significantly alter the nature of learning, including the role of faculty and their relationship with students.

Several interviewees suggested that artificial intelligence (AI) would play an increasingly large and critical role in transforming teaching and learning. They also cautioned that such technologies come with a high price and limitations. Myk Garn of the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia warned that the upfront investments for emerging technologies would lead to a period of digital haves and have-nots that could cripple smaller institutions with fewer resources.

5. Finally, the heart and soul of any institution are its people. Adopting new technologies is only a small piece of the puzzle; institutions must also work with faculty and staff to change institutional culture.

All interviewees acknowledge the critical role that people play in creating cultural change and the tensions involved in doing so. Several discussed the need to work with institutional stakeholders to help develop new pedagogical practices that will make the most effective use of any new technologies.

Northeastern’s Smith was adamant about the need to clearly define the ways in which technology can assist in developing community. Smith posited that a better framework for technology-enabled community is to consider the ways in which technology can enable human connection.

What will the next 20 years hold for American higher education? It’s undeniable that our old model is evolving as it encounters changing expectations and emerging technologies. This evolution is expanding access as educational opportunities cease to be place- and time-bound.

But even for these leaders who are at the forefront, concerns were raised about equity, access, quality, and culture. Regardless, they all came back to a sentiment that Mike Abbiatti expressed: “If we can, in some way, move higher education into an organization that has a true conversation across the continuum of the organization so there is a real serious student focus, then I think we will be in good shape… My greatest hope is that we restate and refine our mission in higher education to be much more focused on student outcomes.”

About the Author:

Van Davis is Associate Vice President of Higher Education Research and Policy at Blackboard. Davis works extensively on competency-based education and higher education policy issues as well as distance education, learning technology, workforce alignment, and college affordability. Before joining Blackboard in January 2015, Davis was Director of Innovations in Higher Education at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB).


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