The typical university is a relic that has withstood fundamental change for far too long.
As futurist David Houle has pointed out, a time-traveler from the 20th, 19th, 18th, and in some cases even the 17th century could be transported into the 21st and feel out of place and overwhelmed. Just by walking down the street, entering the average American home, or perusing the grocery store. But put that time-traveler on a university campus and suddenly they would say, “Ah, a university!”
The change-resistance of higher education models has been stretched to its limit. It is already undergoing the kinds of dramatic, and much-needed changes, that will finally transform it into a resilient, adaptive feature of the new millennium.
This look at the future of education will emphasize universities, because they are the most ripe for change, and destined to occupy a new role of significance in the fabric of society over the next few decades.
The death of the degree began with the rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Critics were quick to highlight the low completion rates relative to the huge levels of enrollment. However they missed the greater trend this represented. Working professionals took advantage of the format to learn specific lessons, gain exposure to discrete elements of a larger curriculum, and generally pursued knowledge, rather than a certificate. At the same time, those who had already graduated from a university pursued greater employability and skills they hadn’t acquired as part of their degree program. Instead used MOOCs and similar free or low-cost online tutoring, training, and personal development programs.
Universities, both public and private, slowly began to take notice of the trend and began offering their own versions of these MOOCs tailored to their own curriculums or degree programs. These early versions of low-cost, online educational resources were sometimes offered as a preview of a full university program. These programs sometimes came with the option to pay upon completion to earn official credit through a sponsoring or partnering institution.
Alternatively private companies in the tech sector or other STEM industries began endorsing an alternate model of skills-focused education. These “microdegrees” were geared toward a mastery of specific, in-demand occupations and related skills. This allowed graduates to earn not college credits, but something akin to endorsements from sponsoring companies and corporations. Over time these microdegrees, and skill “credits” became competitive with more broad-based academic degrees and majors as an employment consideration.
The fundamental shift present in the proliferation of all these cheap, free, alternative models of postsecondary and professional training is with knowledge itself. The accompanying skill sets and capabilities are growing in value, relative to the outdated credentials that for so long symbolized competence and mastery.
Technological disruption, consumer education and changing behavior, and democratization of information continue and accelerate through the internet. As this happens the shelf-life of degrees and the knowledge they represent is getting shorter and shorter. All while the cost of obtaining a degree gets higher and higher.
This means that the cost of education is disproportionate to the value, and both students and employers are ready to embrace an alternative to the university.
Return to Specialization
Over the course of the 20th century universities began diversifying the degree programs they offered in an effort to attract more students. Research universities used the tuition, and student fees gained from students in generic programs to fund their hallmark programs. While a given university would continue to rank for just a few stand-out programs. Virtually any degree could be obtained from virtually any school.
This pattern will be disrupted by the increasing virtualization of core classes and general education requirements typical of the standard college freshman year. At the same time accessibility of introductory courses in more specialized fields will allow students to take a lower-risk approach to exploring majors. It will also allow them to experiment with different curricula, and ultimately design a more personalized degree pathway.
As the personalized learning formats in the K-12 space enable self-paced learning, real-time evaluation, and outcomes assessment, students will come to expect and demand a similar customization at the postsecondary level. This demand will help to compel universities to retreat from offering every degree to every student. Instead it will focus on providing cutting-edge instruction on a more select spectrum of disciplines, becoming leaders in both research and pedagogy for their best-of-class programs.
In order to continue to provide students with a well-rounded education specialized universities will form cooperatives or higher learning networks. Wherein students will receive a personalized transdisciplinary instruction. Not just from multiple departments within a single institution, but from thought-leaders at a multitude of universities.
The rising cost of degrees, along with the rising skills-gap cited by employers, will help transform the new model of both paying for college and college itself. Workforce automation is already a rising premium for knowledge, and highly skilled occupations. Yet outdated methods of pricing and paying for higher education have not evolved. This puts both employers, and the state, in a position to restructure their approach to university education, support for skills-acquisition, and human resource management.
Higher learning networks will begin to accept partnerships with employers who sponsor the continuing education of their workers. The need for increasing skills-development and change-tolerance among employees will bring an end to the front-loaded education model, as it has existed for centuries. Rather than completing a degree and entering a lifetime of employment, the end of the full-time employee will coincide with the rise of the lifelong learner. Employer-sponsored enrollment agreements enabling students to attend school (either online or in person) will become as commonplace, and as standard an expectation, as employer-sponsored health plans were during the second half of the 20th century.
With the support of their employers, future workers will be enabled to keep their skills and knowledge fresh by networking among academics and student peers. Doing so by applying and developing their new talents at work, while learning new best practices and emerging understandings through school.
Personalized learning platforms and competency-based education, in combination with the lifelong learning model sponsored by employers, will be the final nail in the coffin of traditional degrees. Since knowledge will be updated continuously, rather than accredited once and for all with a commencement ritual.