Contemplating the Future of Higher Education

October 4, 2012

America’s higher education system is in dire need of reform. The average college student leaves school with more than $23,000 in debt, and total student loan debt in the United States now exceeds $1 trillion. Furthermore, too many students are leaving college without the skills needed to be successful in the workforce. And yet, there is hope on the horizon: By favoring knowledge and skill acquisition over seat time, online options and competency-based learning are disrupting the traditional higher education market and perhaps have laid the foundation for a revitalization of American education.

One thing is certain: Tomorrow’s model is going to look very different from the current paradigm. Higher education appears to be on the verge of the same kind of massive transformation—or “disruptive innovation”—that has changed the news/newspaper industry so dramatically. The expensive bricks-and-mortar, “sage on a stage” model of college, largely unchanged for centuries, is being challenged by radically different visions of education.

In addition to the innovations such as massively open online courses (MOOCs), online education, and new business models such as Western Governors University—this impending transformation is also being driven by new teaching approaches. Such new approaches are already appearing at the K–12 level, pioneered by entrepreneurial ventures like the Khan Academy. Khan and other similar approaches have “flipped” the sequence of school education, with “homework” becoming the acquisition of online information and the schoolroom becoming the place where teachers work through customized problem sets and projects with groups of students who are working at their own pace and level. Such customization can—and should—be a driving force at the college level.

So what could the future college experience look like? Admittedly, when disruptive innovation is occurring, it is hard to predict how an industry will evolve, but some things seem increasingly plausible.

First, the use of online information and online classes to transmit core information will become far more prevalent. Consequently, students will be able to learn at their own pace from world-ranked experts at the time that is most convenient to them and at a fraction of today’s cost. In turn, as a result of this new method of dissemination, college faculty will function less as lecturers and far more as coaches, teachers, and mentors.

Second, greater convenience and a huge reduction in costs mean that lower-income students will be able not only to obtain the skills they will need to do well in the future economy, but also to do so without incurring crippling debt. Given the key importance of college-level or equivalent skills to future income, the transformation of higher education will likely lead to an enormous boost in the economic mobility of Americans who are now on the lowest rungs of our society.

Third, in the future, there may well be more students who study from their own apartments, homes, or neighborhoods—a phenomenon similar to the growth of homeschooling at the K–12 level. Such a development may cause well-educated parents to take the lead in mentoring their children’s higher education. It could also lead to small “nodes” in neighborhoods and rural towns, perhaps in the evening or weekend at a local high school or business office, where groups of students and education leaders meet for regular seminars and exams based on an online curriculum and course content. For students seeking solid credentials at a reduced price, this localized approach could be the way to obtain strong skills and employability without incurring heavy debt.

These and other features of disruptive innovation occurring in higher education will likely change the very concept of “college” or “university.” Today’s colleges provide, generally at a high price, a wide range of education and other services that are “bundled” together. These services range from lectures to library facilities and from sports to social networks and parties. But in the future, these elements may not all be provided within the same “college.” Indeed, the college may be an institution—and not necessarily even a bricks-and-mortar institution—that assembles elements from different sources to provide a more customized experience.

Homeschooling gives a clue as to how this different form of college might function. A feature of the homeschooling movement, for instance, is that students pursue sports and enrichment activities and develop social networks outside of the home. In some states, homeschooled students participate in regular public school sports teams. A similar scenario could define the “college” of the future, with the strictly academic features of online classes and local nodes supplemented by social, sports, and cultural services that are supplied in other ways. In essence, higher education is likely to become “unbundled,” with separate features provided through different suppliers and the “college” functioning as an enterprise that assembles the various components in a customized package to suit different students.

Another version of this general pattern is “blended learning,” already growing at the K–12 level, in which existing or new bricks-and-mortar colleges—or perhaps even smaller, local institutions—combine online courses and high-quality, customized teaching in a variety of ways. This blended learning approach is particularly attractive because existing colleges can provide umbrella accreditation that encourages the development of an innovative online program.

An example of this trend is Southern New Hampshire University, which originated in the 1930s and functioned for many years as a small New England college. Southern New Hampshire now offers three ways to obtain a degree: through a traditional campus experience, through regional centers affiliated with the campus, and entirely online. Also likely are college degrees that combine periods of home-based online coursework with periods of campus-based courses and “traditional” college life.

The more significant the possible change, however, the more suffocating the current accreditation system will be. From the cost and ponderous nature of the process to the tendency of the system to protect existing institutions and thwart new approaches and competitors, accreditation is and will remain the enemy of innovation. Until they can be assured of quality in ways other than accreditation, young Americans will never have the access they need to an improved and less costly higher education experience.

Lindsey M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at The Heritage Foundation, where Stuart M. Butler serves as the director of the Center for Policy Innovation.