College in 2020

With so much happening in higher education it’s hard to imagine what the college experience will look like in a few years’ time. But one thing seems certain.  For kids entering middle school today, college will be very different.

Oklahoma State Professor of Entrepreneurship Vance Fried is bold enough to make some predictions about the college of 2020 in a recent paper for The Heritage Foundation. He forecasts several sea changes in the college of the not-very-distant future.

For one thing, the online component will mature and trigger profound improvements in higher education. Rather than just sharply cutting the cost of information transfer and essentially bringing the curtain down on the “sage on a stage” model of teaching, or bringing virtually free access to millions via MOOCs, the next stage in the online revolution will be an increasingly sophisticated blending of online technology with customized and self-paced learning. That will transform the learning experience while enhancing the role of skilled teaching professors.

The use of technology and improved business models will also drive down the cost of higher education without a loss of quality – indeed quality will improve. Innovators such as Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University and others are already delivering high quality results at a fraction of traditional costs. Such institutions are already bringing the total tuition cost of a degree down towards the $10,000 mark and it will likely continue to fall.

Costs at this level not only change dramatically the potential return-on-investment equation for students, but also the way future college education will be financed. With tuition costs at the level of buying a used car rather than a three-bedroom house, paying for much of college from savings or part-time employment becomes broadly possible. And so most students and their parents in the future will be able to obtain college level skills without the enormous debt so many must take on today.

Add to these trends, says Fried, the “unbundling” of the college experience into parts that can be obtained in different places and at different times, rather than at one bricks-and-mortar institution. As Karen McKeown observed in another Heritage paper last year, online systems can already do much to reproduce or facilitate core elements of the college experience – including even enhancing a student’s social life. By 2020 the athletic experience of most students could be in city leagues. A semester or year abroad could be organized by an independent planner or a college that specializes in managing such experiences, as it is for many students today. Courses undertaken while at internships with employers would improve a student’s understanding of the real economy and improve their job prospects. And with a further move toward credentialing specific courses and gradually away from accrediting institutions, the college student of 2020 could assemble a degree “package” from multiple institutions and experiences.

I went to St.Andrews University in Scotland. It was founded in 1411. I have often said that the only difference you’d likely notice in an introductory humanities class today compared with 1411 is (maybe) PowerPoint. But by 2020 I doubt I will be able to say that.

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Posted by: Stuart Butler

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