The Future of Higher Education

We can’t know the future. We can, however, try to understand how the future will evolve by studying trends. Take college for example. We know tuition costs are rising too fast and filtering out many who can’t afford it or doubt its debt-to-value ratio. We know that congress cares more about business than education, as banks, businesses and consumers can often get lower interest rates than would-be students. We know college applications are down at many institutions – including our own UVM. We are seeing the genesis of massive open online courses or “MOOCS,” digital libraries, and broadband inter-academic networks. College faculties and administrators are trying to understand the impact of these invasive technologies – sadly, more often on themselves than on the promise of education.

I think the college of the future will have greatly reduced but more intense classroom and lab discovery through discussion and experiment. More time will be spent online doing what we used to call “homework” with a personal faculty mentor available for a weekly conference. We will also see a leap in “experiential learning” in the form of a practicum or internship. The ratio of these will depend on the course of study and their optimal utility.

Faculty excellence will displace living, social, and sports amenities as the determinant of college ranking. Campus residency will compress to 4-8 weeks a year of intense discovery in small-class discussion and lab work. Classes will be limited to 15 students sitting at a table. Desks will disappear. The 4-8 weeks of student residency will rotate throughout the year in 2-week intensives. A college with 30,000 students may have only 3,000 students on campus at any one time. Teacher quality and accountability will count more than any other factor as personal student-teacher interaction increases online. Packed lecture halls, like desks, will be artifacts of the past.

Integral to every course of study will be the practicum. Every student will have a plan for living what they’re learning, whether it’s on-farm work in agriculture, in-school work in education, in-clinic work in healthcare, in-theater company work in drama, in-company work in business, or in-NGO work in development. This practicum may be anywhere in the world.

Independent study, or what we used to call “homework,” will occupy the lion’s share of a student’s time enabling them to progress towards their degree affordably and at their own learning pace. Progress will be determined by skills–based testing and the personal assessment of their online mentor, not the agrarian calendar or their ability to pay.

There are pitfalls on the way: defensive faculty, inadequate systems, and overbuilt campuses. But the benefits of lowered tuition costs, flexible progression, more intimate student-teacher mentorship and class time, and finally improved infrastructure usage will make the transition worthwhile. Traditional high-residency colleges will not disappear, but will continue to cost more than most students can afford.

If education is fundamental to future employment and our democratic process, we will have to look around the corner and plan for the future.

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