What Does the Future of Higher Education Look Like? It Depends Where You Sit
As part of a panel organized for the recent annual conference of the American Library Association in San Francisco, I was invited to talk about future trends in higher education. This was something of a fool’s errand, I realize, since we are bombarded every day by the media with higher education’s most pressing challenges and opportunities:
- Low completion rates
- New pedagogies that meet more of today’s students’ needs—online learning, competency-based education, etc.
- Need for a higher education ecosystem that allows students to carry with them all of the credits they earn, regardless of where or how they earn them
- Special needs of socioeconomically disadvantaged students
There was also the question, from whose perspective should I describe the trends in higher education? The elite institutions with large endowments look forward to a future that is hard for other types of institutions to imagine. Looking at two other types of higher education institutions—the public flagship universities and independent liberal arts colleges—it is apparent that both their outlook and the challenges they face are quite different.
Public research universities have a historical mandate to serve as engines of opportunity for first-generation and lower socioeconomic and non-white populations. They also have a research mandate. And balancing the two creates interesting tensions.
The independent liberal arts colleges are nearly unique as an American phenomenon, and they serve as an ideal for many faculty who place a high value on teaching—small class size, a lot of personal attention for every student, and an emphasis on critical thinking.
In the end, I decided that I could only draw on research data we have gathered in Ithaka S+R’s own projects. The projects themselves are described in detail on Ithaka S+R’s web site (see Technology-Enhanced Education at Public Flagship Universities and Does Online Learning Have a Role in Liberal Arts Colleges?); but here I highlight what the representatives of these two types of organizations told us about how they see the trends in higher education.
From the Public Flagship Universities, we heard:
- State support has been severely eroded.
- Financial officers believe that the current business models for public flagship universities are broken. They have made all of the cuts they can make in the infrastructure and services, so the cuts now affect faculty and curricular programs. We already see this happening at the University of North Carolina.
- Administrators see online degrees, especially in professional schools and at the master’s level, to be a promising source of new revenue.
- Faculty are absolutely focused on research— the single most important factor for promotion and tenure, recognition, and financial reward—despite the prevalence of teaching initiatives on these campuses aimed at improving undergraduate education.
- The many innovative and exciting curricular programs underway on all of these campuses are mainly driven by individual faculty. Very few department-wide programs were in evidence.
- The number of humanities majors has fallen in the past few years by as much as 50%. State legislatures have emphasized STEM programs as most promising for economic growth, and much of the new funding has gone to STEM initiatives.
- Most faculty are concerned about the time required to learn new teaching methods and to develop digital materials for their courses. They don’t know where help can be found, even though most of the universities have invested quite a lot in Centers for Teaching and Learning. We found that the centers that are led by members of the faculty are more likely to be known and appreciated by faculty
By contrast, we hear from the small, independent colleges that:
- Survival is top of mind for most liberal arts college presidents. The Sweet Briar news sent a shock wave through that community.
- There is still a strong interest in maintaining the small, intimate class settings for students in these institutions.
- Faculty are deeply concerned that they could be replaced by online courses.
- Still, there is a great interest in finding the best way to teach undergraduates, and many faculty recognize that the lecture is one of the poorest ways to inspire and engage students.
- Some of these colleges, in a project coordinated by the Council of Independent Colleges, are willing to experiment with online and hybrid learning as a way to increase the number of upper level online courses that could be offered to undergraduates in their institutions as a way to add to the course offerings for their students and to reduce costs.
- In all of these colleges, there are at least a number of faculty who are eager to experiment with technology to see if learning outcomes can be improved.
- Most faculty are interested in making the course materials they have developed available to other institutions.
- Faculty are less interested in using the courses or modules that other faculty have created in their classrooms.
- College administrators see this project as a way to reduce (or more likely, contain) costs. Faculty do not want to have the cost conversation, for it means, they believe, a reduction in the number of humanities faculty.
In both projects, we saw a significant amount of disruption on the campus, and questions about faculty governance during periods of transition loom large.
Institutions other than the highly selective elite institutions are hearing a clear message from the public that tuition rates are too high, but lacking big endowments, many of these institutions have no way to covering costs except increasing tuition.
Collaboration is seen as the answer for several of the big questions, but governance structures of individual institutions do not always facilitate collaboration.
Technology provides promising avenues for new ways of teaching and engaging students, but faculty are not always comfortable with technology coming into their classrooms. Even so, most faculty are painfully aware that the old model of autonomy in the classroom is over.