The Chronicle of Higher Education
From the issue dated October 27, 2000

The Future of Colleges: 9 Inevitable Changes


Several major forces today have the power to transform the nation's colleges and universities. Those of us who work in higher education are already all too familiar with those forces: shifting demographics, new technologies, the entrance of commercial organizations into higher education, the changing relationships between colleges and the federal and state governments, and the move from an industrial to an information society. In addition, the convergence of publishing, broadcasting, telecommunications, and education is blurring the distinction between education and entertainment. A variety of knowledge producers will compete to create courses and other educational services, to develop new ways to distribute knowledge, and to engage larger audiences.

Given such realities, what will happen to higher education as we know it? My answers, based on a quarter-century in colleges, think tanks, and foundations, are entirely speculation. But nine changes seem almost inevitable -- and each will raise thorny questions that we dare not ignore, if we are to thrive in the coming years.

A number of the changes are, in fact, already well under way:

Higher-education providers will become even more numerous and more diverse. The survival of some institutions, especially less-selective private colleges with small endowments and large programs in adult education, will be increasingly threatened by both domestic and foreign for-profit institutions, as well as nonprofit competitors like libraries and museums that also have entered the educational marketplace. Moreover, technological capabilities are encouraging the rise of global universities, which transcend national boundaries. The most successful institutions will be those that can respond quickest and offer a high-quality education to an international student body.

As a result, we should expect new brand names and a new hierarchy of quality in higher-education institutions. Why should a credential from Microsoft University or the British Open University be less prestigious than one from a regional state college? Yet, in such an international environment, how can minimum standards be determined and monitored? How should quality-control mechanisms, such as accreditation, be redesigned?

Three basic types of colleges and universities are emerging. They are "brick universities," or traditional residential institutions; "click universities," or new, usually commercial virtual universities, like and Jones International University; and "brick and click" universities, a combination of the first two. If current research on e-commerce is correct, the most competitive and attractive higher-education institutions will be "brick and click." While consumers appreciate the convenience, ease, and freedom of services online, they also want a physical space where they can interact with others and obtain expert advice and assistance face-to-face.

Who will control the brick-and-click institutions? Will the for-profit sector buy "bricks" -- build physical plants -- before traditional colleges develop the capacity to operate in the "click" environment? Or will just the opposite occur? And how should each of the nation's colleges determine which of the three categories best meets its goals?

Higher education is becoming more individualized; students, not institutions, will set the educational agenda. Increasingly, students will come from diverse backgrounds and will have a widening variety of educational needs. New technologies will enable them to receive their education at any time and any place -- on a campus, in the office, at home, in the car, on vacation. Each student will be able to choose from a multitude of knowledge providers the form of instruction and courses most consistent with how he or she learns.

How can colleges retain and provide services for students with such heterogeneous backgrounds and individualized educational goals? What, specifically, can an institution do to create a strong sense of identity and community? What can brick-and-mortar campuses do that online education can't? And, beyond merely anecdotal information, can we document what those activities might be?

The focus of higher education is shifting from teaching to learning. Colleges currently emphasize a commonality of process based on "seat time," or the amount of time each student is taught. Students study for a defined number of hours, earn credits for each hour of study, and, after earning a specified number of credits, earn a degree. With the increasing number of educational providers, the individualization of education, and the growing diversity of the student body, however, that commonality of process is likely to be lost. The focus will shift to the outcomes that students achieve. Time will become the variable and learning the constant.

Such a development raises very large questions about the meaning of a two-year or four-year degree. It also shifts the definition of excellence from the institution's selectivity in admitting students to the value that the institution demonstrably adds to each student's learning experience.

We also should expect other new forces to gain momentum:

The traditional functions of higher education could become unbundled. Colleges engage in teaching, research, and service -- yet teaching is the only function that is usually thought of as profitable. Research, like college football, brings in dollars for only a small number of institutions. Service, by its very nature, is not remunerative.

Therefore, for-profit and other new providers in higher education are interested only in teaching -- and will compete with traditional colleges solely in the realm of instruction. To the extent that colleges lose out to their new competitors, financial support from both government and private sources for two activities of vital national interest -- research and service -- will be lost.

How do we protect research and service? An institution that engages only in those functions is not financially viable, but one that engages only in teaching may be intellectually impoverished. How can we head off the potential unbundling, for the benefit not only of colleges but also of the nation?

Faculty members will become increasingly independent of colleges and universities. The most renowned faculty members, those able to attract tens of thousands of students in an international marketplace, will become like rock stars. It is only a matter of time before we see the equivalent of an academic William Morris Agency. With a worldwide market in the hundreds of millions of students, a talent agent will be able to bring to a professor a book deal with Random House, a weekly program on PBS, a consulting contract with I.B.M., commercial endorsement opportunities, and a distance-learning course with a for-profit company in a total package of $5-million.

The names of world-class professors will probably be far more important than the institution for which they work. Such a development will be analogous to the changes experienced in Hollywood when the dominance of the studios gave way to the star power of the actors themselves.

Institutions of higher education must ask how they can create communities that are sufficiently vital to attract and retain faculty members in such an environment. Other questions that we must consider: Will the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, with only a handful of very prestigious, well-endowed institutions able to afford the most distinguished professors? What does greater power for the faculty mean in terms of institutional governance? What is the future of tenure if the most sought-after professors leave the academy or become itinerant?

Degrees will wither in importance. Today, the meaning of a degree varies in content and quality, depending on the college. In essence, we offer thousands of different degrees, even if they are called by the same name. A degree now signifies a period of successful college attendance; the class rank indicates the relative success of the student; and the name of the college marks the quality of the degree.

However, with the change in emphasis from institutional process to educational outcomes, degrees will become far less meaningful. A transcript of each student's competencies, including the specific information that the student knows or the skills that he or she can perform, will be far more desirable.

Colleges now have a virtual monopoly on higher-education credentials. If degrees become less important, how will we continue to attract students in a world offering limitless educational choices? Why would a student stay at the same college for periods of up to five years if degrees give way to specific competencies? And, under those circumstance, what are the prospects for residential institutions? Will traditional collegiate life become the province of only the most affluent in our society, who have the leisure and money to afford it?

Every person will have an educational passport. In the future, each person's education will occur not only in a cornucopia of different settings and geographic locales, but also via a plethora of different educational providers. As traditional degrees lose importance, the nation will need to establish a central bureau that records each person's educational achievements -- however and wherever they were gained -- and that provides documentation. Such an educational passport, or portfolio, will record a student's lifetime educational history.

We will need common standards for naming and assessing those achievements. In our decentralized system of higher education, how will we accomplish this? Will each state develop its own standards? Or will accreditors, or perhaps foundations, take the lead?

Dollars will follow the students more than the educators. With the growth in educational providers and the emphasis on outcomes, public and private financial supporters will increasingly invest in the educational consumer rather than the expanding grab bag of organizations that offer collegiate instruction. It's quite possible that federal and state aid that currently supports institutions of higher education will be transferred directly to students.

Such a trend will add to the enormous questions about how we ensure standards of quality among the increasing number of new providers. It will also require us to ask how academic freedom, which demands institutional autonomy, can be preserved when colleges are forced to be as market-driven and consumer-oriented as most commercial organizations are today. How can institutions remain economically viable when financial support shifts more to consumers, faculty members grow more independent, and degrees fade in importance?

What I have described is, in some sense, a ghost of Christmas future. While the trends are no more than one individual's halting attempt to predict things to come, I have no doubt that the forces buffeting higher education today are powerful and will change it considerably. My fear is that America's colleges will ignore them and the important questions that they demand we confront -- or that, simply through complacency or the glacial speed of our decision-making processes, we will fail to respond in time to help shape tomorrow.

In the early years of the Industrial Revolution, the Yale Report of 1828 asked whether the needs of a changing society required either major or minor changes in higher education. The report concluded that it had asked the wrong question. The right question was, What is the purpose of higher education?

All of the questions that I've raised have their deepest roots in that fundamental question. Once more faced with a society in motion, we must not only ask that question again, but must actively pursue answers, if our colleges and universities are to retain their vitality in a dramatically different world.

Arthur E. Levine is president of Teachers College of Columbia University.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Page: B10

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