When the economy is down, folks might run back to school in droves, but the ones who’ve made it out enter the workplace with poor prospects and it immediately begs the question, “Why should I go to school at all?“
A recent Chronicle piece entitled What Colleges Should Learn From Newspapers projects a future that might seem distant now, but won’t be for long if the trends that we’ve begun to see continue.
Much of what’s happening was predicted in the mid-1990s, when the World Wide Web burst onto the public consciousness. But people were also saying a lot of retrospectively ludicrous Internet-related things — e.g., that the business cycle had been abolished, and that vast profits could be made selling pet food online. Newspapers emerged from the dot-com bubble relatively unscathed and probably felt pretty good about their future. Now it turns out that the Internet bomb was real — it just had a 15-year fuse.
Universities were also subject to a lot of fevered speculation back then. In 1997 the legendary management consultant Peter Drucker said, “Thirty years from now, the big university campuses will be relics. … Such totally uncontrollable expenditures, without any visible improvement in either the content or the quality of education, means that the system is rapidly becoming untenable.” Twelve years later, universities are bursting with customers, bigger, and (until recently) richer than ever before.
The arms race that leads to bigger, better palatial campuses with more amenities simply won’t do in an increasingly digital world. The still too overly reliant on paper, fee-increasing financial drain of the current higher ed marketplace simply won’t cut it for future generations who are already tuning out marketing efforts that wouldn’t look out of place a decade ago, despite the massive innovations and tools at our disposal.
What will the future of higher education look like? Will an iTunes-like application provides access to thousands of university courses from around the globe, allowing students to download a la carte courses and craft them into a customized degree? Will brand name degrees backed by credible institutions replace accreditation?
No matter where the industry heads, one thing is for sure. A lot of adaptation and change will be needed, if many of the schools in this country expect to survive into the next decade.