If you work at or lead a private residential college, things are going to get interesting. As we move through 2020 and beyond, these colleges have ten years (or much less with some of the items in the list) to figure out how they are going to respond or adapt to the following changes.
American higher education is the story of change, struggle, adaptation, extinction, flourishing, fumbling, innovation, and tradition. As such, the following list might include new challenges, but most are no greater than the challenges that shaped and reshaped higher education in the past. The question is whether colleges will carefully, thoughtfully, strategically plan and adapt; or whether they will wait until it is too late, only to find themselves struggling for a response at the last minute.
- Tuition Free College – Like it or not (I have a number of concerns about all of the existing proposals that I’ve seen), there will be political ebbs and flows and there is a high likelihood of a bill passed that makes tuition free for 2-year degrees, and possibly 4-year degrees at public higher education institutions. If you are a selective or highly selective college, you might be insulated, but for the rest, this is going to impact your enrollment. In addition, the reallocation of federal funds for tuition-free college has the chance of removing or decreasing federal financial aid for undergraduate students in private colleges. This might not happen in the next 5 years, but schools are wise to at least have a potential plan should this occurs in the next 10-15 years.
- Online Degree Programs – Nothing new here, right? Wrong. I first got involved with online learning in the 1990s and there was already well over fifty years of research and practice on distance learning. We’ve only seen the beginning of online learning. The adoption rate is on the rise as is the growing comfort of spending more of our lives behind a screen. The stigma is on a decline, and while there are mixed views about how the pandemic will impact people’s perceptions of online learning, every indication is that it is on the rise. In the next decade we will see double digit declines in people choosing a residential college experience over an online (or largely online) alternative, at least for the academic portion of their higher education experience.
- Declining Value for Higher Education – We can ignore or dislike the statistics, but there is a steady increase in the number of young people (and people of all ages) who don’t consider traditional college as important as the last couple generations.
- Higher Education Alternatives with Equally Promising Career Trajectories – This combined with the last one is well on its way to creating a perfect storm. Education innovation is on the rise, but much of it is not confined to the work of regionally accredited residential undergraduate colleges. Many in academia may well dismiss these outsider educational movements as lower quality fads that will fade, and that is just how these innovations often begin. High or low quality, they are growing.
- AI-Powered Adaptive Learning – “Computers will never replace teachers” has been a common quote to comfort and appease educators for decades, but it isn’t true. Computers have already begun to replace teachers. Or, rather, the development of adaptive learning software has done so. We might not see a rapid reduction in full-time equivalent employees due to the growth of innovations like adaptive learning software right away, but it is only a matter of time before we begin to see student learning outcomes through computer-aided-instruction exceeding the outcomes of teacher-led instruction. Such results will create change. When an AI-powered piece of software can read and adapt to the slightest shifts and needs of every learner, we will see people wanting to use it.
- Shifting Demographics – Read Nathan Grawe’s Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education. If your focus is traditional aged residential undergraduate students, read it twice.
- The New Normal – Will life return to normal post-pandemic? Yes, but it will be a new normal. Memories, habits, ways of thinking, and ways of being may well persist for a generation or longer. Some of these changes might be so subtle that we fail to notice them on a daily basis, but all of those little changes can add up to sizable shifts over years. Among many possibilities, people‘s connection to space and place is likely to shift.
These have potential to significantly change how people think and go about higher education, but they don’t mean the end of the residential college experience. Full-time and residential college has always and will continue to be the minority option in the United States, but that does not mean that the future is bleak. In fact, there are countless promising possibilities for such schools. They can and will continue to play a valued role in life of Americans and society, if only they are willing to listen, learn, respond, adapt, differentiate, and embrace new ways and possibilities.