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)


Add your opinion to the discussion.