Free college, online-driven education and aligning skills with in-demand jobs are just some of the ways college may change in the future. After all, with student loan debt in the trillions, college graduates unprepared for entry-level positions and many people dropping out before earning a degree, it’s become clear that something has to be done to address higher education’s problems.
That’s not to say change isn’t already happening. Approaches to tackling the outsized student debt and better preparing students for the rigors of the real world are underway. But what will emerge from the fruits of these labors depends on who you talk to.
With that in mind, GoodCall spoke with experts across the higher education landscape to get a sense of what college will look like in five, ten and twenty years. In some cases, they agreed, while at other times their visions were very different. But one thing is for sure – twenty years from now, higher education won’t going to look the same as it does today.
More Focus on ROI
Students and families will focus more on college return on investment, affordability and student loan debt
Change takes time. And for higher education, there won’t be a complete revolution in five years. However, there should be a lot of progress, whether it’s in how students evaluate schools or how the student debt crisis is handled. Take shopping for college, for starters. During the next five years, students and families are expected to become more savvy shoppers, weighing attributes that historically haven’t been considered when deciding on what school to attend or what kinds of degrees to pursue.
“For 300-plus years, we evaluated the quality by the square footage of the library or what exclusivity it has,” says Carol D’Amico, executive vice president of National Engagement and Philanthropy with USA Funds, the non-profit focused on increasing access to higher education. “The quality of the consumer experience has not been part of the equation.”
Over the next five years, D’Amico sees a shift happening, where potential students will weigh college return on investment, including the outcomes of the past students, job prospects upon graduation and the overall college experience more seriously than whether a school has a state-of-the-art gym. Similar to how people get real-person reviews of restaurants, doctors and other services, the same diligence will be applied to shopping for college.
Becoming more discerning shoppers is also expected to help with the student loan debt crisis. After all, students will know upfront that spending $100,000 for a particular degree may not be worthwhile based on the outcomes of the students before them.
During this election season, much has been discussed about the cost of a college education and the more than $1.3 trillion in student loan debt. Presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders extolled the benefits of free college, while politicians have been putting forth bills to help students with their mounting debt. That progress is only going to continue during the next five years, although it remains to be seen what dent it will make in the overall problem (or whether free college will become a reality.
“We’ve seen real improvement on college affordability in the last five years,” says Natalia Abrams, executive director at StudentDebtCrisis.org, the non-profit focused on changing the way we pay for college. “I’m hopeful that we will have free college and completely debt-free college, and we will see a strengthening of consumer protections on the loan servicers’ side and a streamlining of repayment programs.” Abrams also expects more of a crackdown on the cost of college during the next five years in which state funding will be tied to certain limits on what schools can charge for tuition.
Blending the Traditional and the Technological
Internet will play bigger role in learning
While the debate rages on about the need for a traditional college degree, progress will continue to be made in marrying a traditional college education with online classes. The Internet is increasingly becoming a tool for colleges and universities around the country who see the value it can bring.
“About 50 percent of all private colleges have some kind of online program,” says David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. “A vast majority are blended courses that utilize online education opportunities, but the brick and mortar continues to be there.”
According to Warren, while the Internet will increasingly play a larger role in how college students learn, schools will maintain a tight connection between the online world and their physical campuses and communities. What’s more, over time Warren sees an increase in one-on-one learning with faculty members and the flexibility of how the courses are offered.
Still, that doesn’t mean the blending of these two mediums will be easy sailing. According to Avi Flombaum, dean of Flatiron School, the New York-based coding school, the challenge will be in making sure schools are creating programs that truly reflect how people learn. “Learning is social and knowledge is almost always transferred from person to person,” says Flombaum.
“In the future, the idea of community should be built into every digital learning experience – students across the world supporting each other, content improving the more people use it. And then, that should seamlessly transition into the offline experience in the form of co-learning, similar to today’s co-working spaces, where we know people thrive,” Flombaum says.
But online learning won’t be the only driver of change to higher education. Decreased funding on the part of states could create more debt for low-income students attending public 4-year schools. This, in turn, could drive students to look for cheaper alternatives. One that may emerge as a big player, says Dr. Katherine Bihr, Vice President of Programs & Education at the Tiger Woods Foundation, is community colleges, which will increasingly come up with models that include offering bachelor’s degrees.
What’s more, as families look to curb the cost of a college degree, high school can become more important in fighting student debt. “I can envision a movement towards dual enrollment between secondary school and college, where students can take college courses receiving credit satisfying high school graduation requirements and eliminating the need to take general education courses,” says Bihr.
Schools will be more accountable to students and graduates
For decades, colleges and universities have focused on churning out graduates that are well-rounded individuals. But increasingly they are dropping the ball when it comes to giving employers graduates with the skills needed to succeed. That has prompted employers to spend money training their new hires – or looking outside the pool of college graduates for qualified workers.
As a result, in the next few years, experts expect colleges and universities to be more accountable to what they are teaching their students. There will be greater collaboration with corporations to ensure students are gaining the correct skills for the in-demand jobs. There will always be a time and place to analyze Thoreau, but a lot of focus will also be placed on communications and technical skills.
“Employers are finally signaling that what they are getting is just not good enough,” says D’Amico of USA Funds. “Only about 11 percent of employers think that higher education is doing a good job.” According to D’Amico, there are an increasing number of startups that are emerging to close the gap between what employers say they want from graduates and what they are getting from the experience.
Whether or not in twenty years’ time we get to the point where college is free or debt-free is still up for debate. But it is clear that if we do nothing, tough times are ahead – not only for college students but the nation at large.
“If things proceed according to the status quo, we are likely to see a path that we’ve seen in the past almost fifteen years,” says Robbie Hiltonsmith, senior policy analyst at think tank Demos. “The cost of tuition goes up even more, and we will likely see increasing amounts of student debt, which will be a damper on their financial future. We pretend that certain paths are an inevitable result of economic forces beyond our control, but in reality through policy, we have a say in what the future can look like.”
We spoke to 8 experts from various parts of the higher education world, and compiled their thoughts on the future of higher education here.