Are Predictions About College Closures Causing More Schools to Struggle? How Might Alternative Predictions Shape the Future of Higher Education?

Anyone who follows contemporary issues in higher education is familiar with the provocative prediction from Clayton Christiansen (and others like Thomas Frey) that 50% of colleges will close over the 10-15 years. Will it happen? We are already several years into the prediction, so we don’t have to wait too long to find out. Only I’d like to posit three other questions.

First, does it have to happen?

Second, is the college closure prediction causing colleges to struggle and close?

Third, could the definition of “higher education“ be keeping us from recognizing that the more likely future is one of expanded higher education?

Let’s start with the first question. Does this closure prediction have to happen? Thomas Frey, a futurist whose work I follow and admire, is known for saying that, “the future creates the present.” In other words, our visions and musings about the future shape our thinking in the present. By thinking more deeply about a particular vision of the future, we may also be helping to make it a reality.

So, does it have to happen? At this point, I suspect that some version of the college closure prediction is likely to occur. In fact, the spirit of the prediction has already occurred. The number of closures is up, and there are many colleges struggling for survival. Did this have to happen? Yes and No. There could be other data-informed predictions and ways of thinking about the future that could create a very different future for higher education. Competing predictions could have shaped and redirected the public conversation in very different ways. Some colleges would have still closed, as they have always done. For a helpful historical perspective of the wild rise and demise of colleges in the United States, check out A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education by David Labaree.

What about the second question? Is Christiansen’s prediction causing colleges to struggle and close? If Frey’s concept is accurate, that the future creates the present, does that mean that the prediction of the future is indeed helping to create the present circumstances? Or, to be fair, is the prediction of several futurists that many colleges will close soon helping to make that a reality?

Consider this example. There was recent rumor about a possible release of an article in a well known higher education news source that was going to provide a list of predictions about which colleges are likely to close in the next ten years. It turns out that this was not exactly the intent of the article and it has not released at this point, but there are indeed groups that are analyzing colleges based upon publicly available records, and they could release such a list.

What happens next? Suppose there is a college that is struggling but it is doing amazing work to stabilize, turn itself around, and re-imagine itself in ways that could be incredible, inspiring, and valuable to the world. Yet, the current circumstance of that organization is fragile. Then an article releases that predicts this college’s closure within 5-10 years. How do you think that will impact the college’s ability to recruit new students or raise new funds? How do you think it will impact its ability to build strategic partnerships? By publishing such a specific prediction, it didn’t just offer a neutral report. It helped make the prediction a more likely reality. It might have potentially undermined the present turnaround efforts of the institutions on that list. Of course, I live in a nation where there is freedom of press, and I would not want to censor such free exchange. I just want to acknowledge that such writing isn’t just describing. It is helping to create a particular future. It isn’t just informing. It is forming.

The same thing applies with broader or more general predictions about higher education. It would not be fair or accurate to claim that Clayton Christiansen’s prediction about college closures is the cause of so many recent college struggles and even closures, nor would it be accurate. There are many other factors. Yet, it is hard to deny that this prediction changed the contemporary discourse in higher education. Just scan the number of media headlines. If you go to higher education conferences, there is no doubt that you’ve heard countless people quoting Christiansen’s prediction or discussing it between sessions. Talk to groups of college presidents or to chairs of college boards, and you will find that this quote has influenced in will influence their thinking and choices. To publicly predict something is to help make it a more likely reality.

I don’t write this as a criticism. I support the fact that Christiansen wrote this. It sparked good and important conversation. It drew people’s attention to the many forces influencing the future of higher education. It also sparked new thinking and innovations.

Yet, when a well-respected Harvard professor makes such a prediction and it starts to gain traction, that is powerful force. It gets picked up by more media sources and gains the attention of people in places of influence. Just look at how Howard Gardner’s writing shifted an entire generation of educator’s view of intelligence. Ideas (and predictions are ideas) have consequences. They are never neutral. If they are shared and discussed, they influence. They influence policy. They influence the thinking and decision of key influencers in government, higher education leadership, accrediting agencies, think tanks, and more.

So, did the prediction that 50% of all colleges will close in the next 10-15 years help make that a more likely future? There is compelling case that the answer is “yes.” Would that future have occurred even without the prediction being shared? I think the answer that question is also “yes.”

This brings me to the third question. Could our definition of “higher education” be causing us to miss an opportunity to help create a possible future of rapidly expanding higher education?

Followers of my work know that I’ve challenged the college closure prediction, not because I think it is inaccurate, but because I think a more nuanced prediction could help us create a more hopeful future for learning beyond high school. I don’t doubt or question that many colleges will struggle and close, especially those resistant to fundamental changes. We already see that happening, and if they are not able to provide enough value to warrant the attendance of students and the support of donors, perhaps it is time for them to close. Yet, despite all of this, I made the following prediction in 2015:

Will that mean that only half survive? I think that is too simple of a picture. Many will have extreme makeovers, but will emerge with new life. Some will shrink while others expand. And alongside all of that, I am convinced that we will see an entirely new breed of higher education institution… I expect that, by 2030 [or maybe 2035], we might have two to three times as many higher education institutions as we have today, even as there will be more alternatives to the traditional college routes for people. Get ready for the higher education “startup” revolution. They might not all be higher education institutions as we’ve thought of them in the past, but they will be institutions [or communities] that provide education beyond the secondary level.

https://etale.org/main/2015/07/27/higher-education-in-2030-get-ready-for-the-highered-startup-revolution/

In fact, while many media sources are quick to join in helping to amplify the impact of the prediction about college closures, I continue to contend that we are missing the higher education revolution underway. People are drawn to the headlines of college closures and colleges on probation with their accreditors (I’m helping lead one of those colleges right now, and the future is admittedly unclear), and those make for provocative headlines. Yet, one need not look further than Clayton Christiansen’s own writing about how disruptive innovation works to know that the true disruptions are often missed, even ignored in early stages. Not only are they missed and ignored by the established institutions, they are also often missed by the media and larger system. That is happening today.

There is a rapid democratization of learning community creation, formation, and cultivation at work today. I’ve sometimes referred to this as “outsider higher education” because it resembles the development of outsider art. Outsider artists often didn’t (and don’t) even consider themselves artists. Yet, over time, outsider art became a part of the larger ecosystem. This is happening all over the place, especially in the digital landscape. Individual instances have an ebb and flow of media attention and discussion in higher education communities, but people rarely recognize how these individual instances represent a larger pattern and movement that is changing the nature of learning and education. Sometimes these individual instances resemble traditional higher education communities. Other times they don’t, and they don’t bother with such things as grades, transcripts, degrees, any many other characteristics that are part of our image of higher education.

As one who studies past, present, and future trends in education; I continue to be amazed at how little many of us in higher education know about our own history, and how short that history is when it comes to aspects of college or higher education experience. When we step back and look at the history of higher education, we see that change is the norm, sometimes drastic change.

The problem is that these new and emerging higher education communities look so different from what we think of as college that we don’t think to include them in our conversations about the future of the ecosystem. Yet, if we think of them in terms of the goals that they help people achieve (beyond earning a degree), there is a strong case to be made that they are indeed a part of the broader notion of higher education.

When I predict that we will have two to three times the number of higher education communities, I am not suggesting that these will be formal or regionally accredited colleges. Rather, I am suggesting that they will be communities that, at their essence, expand and extend people’s learning beyond the secondary level. If we are willing to broaden or perspective, we soon begin to see that this is a revolution that has been underway for fifty years, and it is growing exponentially.

So, while we already have predictions about college closures, I expect that the far more interesting and promising predictions relate to what forms of higher education will persist. By only focusing upon the college closure predictions, we risk contributing to a future where there are a smaller number of dominant institutions that lack the variety and diversity that exists today. If we instead broaden our definition of higher education and focus upon predictions of a rich, vibrant, diverse, and highly valued ecosystem; we have a much better chance of helping make that future a present reality.

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