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What does higher-ed look like in 2023?

College could be a very different place when freshmen step foot on university campuses in the fall of 2023. For starters, many students will find that step to be entirely virtual.

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Accreditation could change dramatically by 2023.

A seemingly alarmist prediction from Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen gaining traction among some educators states that more than half of universities will be in bankruptcy within 15 years.

Michael Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, recently made a similar prediction, but provided a slightly more optimistic number of 25 percent.

Either way, this would mean that the high school senior class of 2023 will have far fewer options when it comes to picking a school. But that doesn’t mean they’ll have fewer choices in obtaining an education.

Far from it, said Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

“I absolutely think a number of universities could go bankrupt or merge,” Schroeder said. “I think we’re going to see a big shakeup. But choices for students will actually expand.”

Students in 2023 will “pursue a mix of options,” he said.

The average student, an admittedly fluid term that will be even harder to define a decade from now, will likely take some courses on a traditional campus, but also an equal mix of online courses, flipped or blended courses, and massive open online courses (MOOCs) [2].

These courses will come from a combination of four-year universities, community colleges, and for-profit companies like Coursera [3] and Straighter Line [4].

“We’re going to see fewer and fewer classes that are fully on campus,” Schroeder said.

(Next page: How the divider between K-12 and college will begin to crumble over the next decade)

And students in 2023 will be taking some of these courses long before they are even in college.

David Palumbo, the vice president of personalized learning company Compass Learning, said the bureaucratic gulf that sometimes exists between a K-12 education and a college education will shrink over the next decade.

With access to free, or discounted, online courses, students will graduate high school having had greater access to knowledge normally preserved for introductory college classes. Students will graduate with more AP credits and from high schools with stronger community college partnerships, Palumbo said.

This could change the way colleges think about accreditation.

Academia is notoriously loathe to stray from the traditional credit hour, but experts said that the student body of 2023 will have come of age in a time where digital badges and course certificates are more common.

Students will expect college to be faster, cheaper, and more customizable, Palumbo said.

Similarly, more and more employers, particularly in computer science fields, are coming to accept online course certificates as legitimate means of demonstrating learning. By 2023, universities could be feeling pressure to rethink the system as their incoming students and the alumni looking to hire those students will be on the same page.

“I think institutions are slow-moving, but that individuals are fast-moving,” Palumbo said. “What we’re seeing now is students taking command of their learning experience. I think students can more accurately map their needs. Students will be more in the driver’s seat than ever before.”

Helping students “map” their education in 2023 will be artificially intelligent adaptive learning software [5] informed by mountains of what’s called “Big Data.”

Big Data [6] is the phrase used to describe the 2.5 quintillion bytes of information created every day through online, social, and mobile interactions. The amount of Big Data is estimated to reach nearly 40 zettabytes by 2023.

“In the next decade, each student’s ‘digital footprint’ will become deeper and clearer,” said Mark Milliron, the chief learning officer for predictive analytics company Civitas [7], referring to the electronic trail students will create over their lives in school.

This will help the students of 2023 select what courses they should take, advance through those courses at more personalized rates, and even decide what majors are the best fit for them.

As students read digital eTextbooks, the apps will also be “reading” the students, recommending extra reading, identifying problem areas and memory lapses, and quizzing them on key lessons.  Mobile apps connecting — and parsing data from — thousands of students will replace traditional event bulletin boards.

And collecting data from social media profiles could gauge the emotional reactions student are having to coursework or the campus environment. Are they struggling? Are they bored?

Some universities are already in the early stages of implementing all of this data-driven technology.

“If we do this right, it will not only help struggling students but also high achieving students who are phoning it in,” Milliron said. “It won’t just raise the floor. It will also raise the ceiling.”

In 2023, students could have more learning options than ever before, and more software to help them make sense of those options — from picking a college to finding their first job. That begs the question, then: In a future where at least a quarter of universities may not even exist, where does faculty fit in?