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The Future of Universities in America

I’d like to host a conversation with you, and others who read this article. I want to talk about the future of higher education—post secondary schooling that prepares students for not only their careers but for adult life.

Is it currently changing? Yes.

Is it changing quickly enough? Many would say, no.

“Not enough people are innovating enough in higher education,” complains Larry Summers, the economist who served for five years as president of Harvard University. “General Electric looks nothing like it looked in 1975. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Stanford look a lot like they looked in 1975. They’re about the same size to within a factor of two; they’re about the same number of buildings; they operate on about the same calendar; they have many of the same people, or some number of the same people in significant positions.”

If Summers is accurate in his estimation—why do universities drag their feet? Some educators say it’s because so much of true education is more than information. When learning on-line or in the cloud, you miss the face-to-face debates, the interaction in a classroom and the learning that happens in residence halls and on a traditional campus. I tend to agree. So far, we’ve not been very good at teaching soft skills, especially empathy, on a screen. Other educators would argue that on-line learning and digital engagement is incomplete and limited. Much can be done in the cloud, but some academic learning cannot be done so well. I can understand this argument too, but I wonder if a larger reason for slow change at universities is this simple fact:

Many of the current jobs would be at risk.

It has been said that the university is made up of hundreds of stubborn parts who don’t like to move much. “Moving a university is like moving a cemetery—you can’t expect any help from the inhabitants,” says Barb Oakley, a professor who taught traditional class structures at several universities for years before signing up to teach with Coursera, digitally.

But with everything in corporate culture changing so rapidly—the very place where these schools feed the graduates—can there be a collision coming? Will Generation Z students see an obvious gap between what’s happening in colleges and what’s happening in the business market in which they look forward to participating?

Certainly, some change is happening in higher education. Just look at the University of Texas at San Antonio, or the University of Chicago and you can see the old smelly library is being transformed.

Journalists Amy Wang and Allison Schwager write,

First, there came free or cheap digital learning platforms like Coursera and the University of Phoenix—offering distance learning to people who wouldn’t have otherwise gone to a traditional college. Now, however, traditional campuses, hundred-year-old state flagships and community colleges and Ivy League schools alike, are also offering lecture courses for free across the internet. In some cases, they’re even allowing degrees to be fully or partially completed online. Then there are all the new tech-savvy alternative schools and coding boot camps floating around, daring traditional schools to up their ante.

So—what do you think?

How can we prepare students for the future, where many will likely get a job that doesn’t even exist today? What can be done to not lose the current pedagogy and methodology that is useful to pass on an intelligent worldview and offer a wise lens with which to see the world? How do we retain what is timeless, yet still remain timely?

I’d love to hear from you. Any thoughts or comments to leave?

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  1. Chris Pleune on January 17, 2018 at 9:34 am

    It used to be that college was the the that differentiated between candidates. Now, everyone has an education. In some cases, you need to go to college in order to learn the pre-requisites of getting into your field of study (i.e. doctor, engineer, etc.).

    Personally, I find very little use for what I learned in business college (in the early 90s) in my business life. Worked in an office environment for 15+ years, have some rental houses, and currently running my own international business.

    I want my boys to be “educated,” but I’m not 100% sure that means college these days. If they are going to go into business, I believe they will find that learning about business is best done by starting a business. What if they started 10 businesses from the ages of 18-24? They could all fail, and what would they be out? Nothing. An 18 year old has very little to lose, but boy will they learn something starting those businesses.

    Or what if they were to travel for a time. The people they could meet would be invaluable to starting a business in this world-wide marketplace.

    I don’t know what the answer is…I still have a couple years. Maybe, it’s a combination of “college” and hands on…I think it is getting to that place and colleges will need to change or they will be left behind.

  2. Stan Harstine, Ph.D. on January 17, 2018 at 9:48 am

    Tim, I am a university professor. I think one factor shaping the status of a university’s role comes from the psychological development of the student. As many others have written on much more extensively, there is a process of cognitive development that must take place. Just as a kindergarten student must be spoken to in a literal fashion because they take things literally, the vast majority of university students are in a crucial stage of personal development.
    So while the outward appearance of a university may seem to be staying the same, what happens inside is often lost to the onlooker-who is comparing apples to oranges. My own university experience at a public institution is considerably different from what I have experienced as a graduate student, teaching assistant, lecturer and professor during my “higher education” training. Indeed, partially with thanks to Growing Leaders, I am not the same instructor I was in 2000-mostly because the students are not the same in their training, maturity, and technical savvy.
    So, I suggest any meaningful discussion needs to focus on “how” universities address the adult cognitive development of students rather than on “what” universities look like. Since I would suggest that if one takes a overview of a business-its “what” hasn’t changed much. Business still has leaders, employees, investors and consumers, in other words business is still business.

  3. Rob Cooksey on January 17, 2018 at 9:49 am

    Tim, as a university regent myself, I couldn’t agree more. It would be great if we could dig deeper to name some ways that we could address the future opportunities. The connection to staff is certain. Ultimately, it’s a funding item, especially for smaller private and parochial universities.

    Then I also wonder about K-12 education. We have no ability to predict with certainty what the career paths will be when these student graduate, so we know that we have to teach more than academic knowledge. Life skills are the new critical item. But what about the increase in families that want on-line or part-time on-line education? How does a tuition funded school address that when it has teachers walking the hallways? This is the exact situation in my community. We need to stop fighting it and embrace it. Are there ways to address this?

  4. Karen Sargent on January 17, 2018 at 10:31 am

    Hi, Tim. I teach honors senior English, evening classes for the local junior college, and I have two daughters attending the same state university my husband and I attended in the late 80’s early 90’s. I have so many opinions on this topic, some of which may veer off slightly. (Sorry!)

    First, the university my daughters attend has changed significantly since my husband and I attended, and not in good ways. Even though they live on campus, several of their required classes are offered only online. My daughters are both on scholarship, and I can assure you their online learning is surface level. They do not benefit from professor interaction, class discussion, opportunities to ask questions, etc. Typically, the online classes are work heavy (review articles, participate in forums, write papers, take tests), but the content itself isn’t rigorous. As for classes they attend with professors, it seems professors require so much less of students, and they cater to whining, demanding students, which both of my daughters complain about (two years apart, two different majors). In recent years public education (secondary and post-secondary) has been held accountable for graduation and retention rates. I know how significantly this has impacted high schools. I wonder if that is part of the reason the university seems to be easier today; those retention numbers matter and are tied to dollars and high stakes.

    I think Stan brings up an interesting point about the psychological development of the student, what they are ready for and capable of when they reach college. We know our students are less mature and ready for independence than we were a generation ago. Also, high school students at our school are now taking numerous online courses through the junior college. They go to the library the “hour” they are scheduled by the counselor to take their online courses. Students are graduating high school with 30+ college hours, therefore starting college as academic sophomores who are not emotionally or intellectually sophomores. Cheating in online courses is rampant and overlooked. In fact, last year a group was caught cheating on their college algebra final (they looked up answers on their Chromebooks). The school counselor contacted the college. The recourse? The instructor wrote another final exam–with fewer questions–and allowed students to use a note card. There was no penalty for their intentional dishonesty. The online courses have become so popular at our school, that we now have students on target to graduate high school with an associate’s degree, which means we’ll be sending 20 year-olds with degrees into the adult work world. In addition to the way this impacts their maturity as students and employees, this cuts off two years of their youth, rushing them into adulthood.

    I’m going to end my rant here. I have more to say, but I don’t know that any of this really addressed your topic. But this is what I see, and what concerns me, as a high school teacher, adjunct instructor, and mom. I appreciate the important work you do.

  5. Bill Mann on January 17, 2018 at 12:03 pm

    Thoughtful discussion on an important topic. One thing that should change is what is called the “flipped classroom” which is gaining popularity. The teacher becomes a facilitator not a lecturer. This model goes to the heart of milleninials and even Gen Z who want interactive discussion and learning. The learning by students increases 6 fold under this model. I mentor a cross section of millennials and Gen Z, and know, from experience, that they prefer the non-didactic model of learning. A Socratic model is far superior for their learning experience. I don’t have any blinding glimpse of the obvious here – I’m retired after 45 years of law practice, but my mentoring experience tells me that the teaching model has to change to encourage creative thinking. Part of that requires an emphasis on reading to make up for the reliance on technology for “answers”, often which are wrong (2.6% of Google’s answers to searches are wrong which means that several billion are wrong over the trillion or so searches done every year).

  6. Mark Kalpakgian on January 17, 2018 at 4:17 pm

    Maybe a good analogy is craft brewing which has taken off around the country. The future of the University will likely be analogous–smaller, more niche, and more focused around things that are local and “non-franchisable.” For example, think of the dynamic universities that center around faith formation as well as education in the great philosophical and theological tradition. Their “craft” ingredients of faith, community, character formation, project-based learning and the cultivation of deep friendships are all things that cannot be outsourced online or scaled mechanically. These are qualities which will definite and elevate the University of the future. Those that focus merely on skills, technology, and jobs will be obsolete to lower cost, more efficient alternatives.

  7. Jerry Bures on February 5, 2018 at 11:24 am

    I’m still okay with the old model of higher education (universities) as an option. For two reasons. 1) Too many parents today are failing their kids when it comes to getting basic life skills outside of academics, and 2) Certain professions kids aspire to still require university training as an entry into their field.

    But I do believe better models for higher education exist, such as online degrees, military training, starting a business, and even two-year technical degrees.

    That said, parents and other adults shouldn’t be waiting to teach soft skills like empathy until youth have graduated high school. Eighteen years is a lot of time and family life is the perfect training ground. As long as parents are getting their kids plenty of experiences outside the home above and beyond formal education, there’s little risk of “needing” universities for getting hands-on, skill-building experiences, or for building confidence, cooperation, and compassion in young adults.

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The Future of Universities in America