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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The Future of Universities in America