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So Many Questions About Education's Future

October 21, 2013
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Over dinner recently, my son and daughter-in-law asked: When it’s time for kids born today to go to college, what will their experience be like?

Considering the vast differences in the generations already seated around the table, it’s a valid question. My college years bore little resemblance to what my children experienced not so many years later.

But when I thought about the seismic shifts higher education is undergoing these days, that original question began to splinter and proliferate.

Who will go to college in 2030? How much will it cost, and how will students pay for it? What will they study? Will targeted vocational training replace a liberal arts education? What learning delivery methodologies will institutions use? Will students still attend brick-and-mortar schools or only learn virtually? What kind of graduates will enter the workforce, and what are the implications for employers?

At this point, there are no concrete answers, but I did a little digging and uncovered some opinions and research about the future of higher education that should influence and inform decisions in the present.

Economics, demographics and digital technologies are transforming not only higher education but also the matriculation decision itself. Many prospective college students are questioning the return on investment of earning a degree. Tuition and fees at public four-year colleges rose 72 percent above inflation in the past decade, while the market value of a bachelor’s degree fell about 15 percent, according to a chart from Citi Research.

In his book, “Paying for College Without Going Broke,” Kal Chany, founder and president of Campus Consultants, estimated that the average price for a private university in 2030 would exceed $130,400 a year. A state university would cost more than $41,200 a year.

Soaring costs will almost certainly rule out universal participation in higher education, limiting diversity in the future workforce and reducing employer access to potential innovation and talent.

But money isn’t the only factor radically changing college demographics and affecting workplace diversity and capabilities. Until now, most degree programs have been designed for full-time students who recently graduated from high school. But today 75 percent of students are “nontraditional.” Students younger than 23 are in the minority, and residential colleges represent less than half of the institutions that serve them.

Education and technology thought leader Clay Shirky recently blogged about what college is actually like. “Forget Swarthmore, with 1,500 students. Think Houston Community College, with 63,000. Think rolling admissions. Think commuter school. Think older. Think poorer. Think child-rearing, part-time, night class. Think 50 percent dropout rates. Think two-year degree.”

Given this evolving altered reality, it’s not surprising that new course delivery and degree acquisition models are emerging. The advent of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, is a prime example. Though the rise of MOOCs has been polarizing in educational circles, access to free or lower-cost online classes is revolutionizing the cost-sensitive higher education arena and attracting hundreds of thousands of people searching for an accessible, flexible alternative.

While there’s little doubt MOOCs are changing higher education, the business ramifications won’t be fully understood for some time, especially when it comes to the impact on the future workforce.

This raises even more questions.

Will the divide that already exists between the educational haves and have-nots grow wider? Who will prevail when a graduate from a traditional university competes with the graduate of an online program for graduate school admission or a job? Will learning organizations need to drastically alter their approach to workforce development to fill in new gaps left by new educational models? Will the future workforce have the experience, critical thinking and problem-solving skills needed to innovate and keep organizations competitive in a global economy?

As a community, we need to find the answers.

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