A ‘cloudy’ forecast: the future of higher education

A ‘cloudy’ forecast: the future of higher education

Global futurist and keynote speaker at this year’s EAIE Conference in Istanbul, Jack Uldrich, shares his predictions of the future facing higher education with this excerpt from his forthcoming book, Foresight 20/20. Using a fictional dialogue between a father and his daughter, Jack aptly demonstrates the growing divide between generations and their expectations of learning, painting a vivid picture of higher education in the near future.

In 2002, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) began offering all of its undergraduate courses available online for free. In 2008, Straighterline – an online university – provided students the opportunity to obtain a college degree at a cost of $99 a month. In 2009, Trina Thompson sued her alma mater, Monroe College, for $72 000 because she was unable to find suitable employment after receiving a four-year college degree.

In 2011, a nationally touted study claimed that 45% of college students couldn’t demonstrate any increase in knowledge after their first two years of college. Later in the year, the University of the South became the first college in the nation to voluntarily decrease its tuition. It dropped the price by $4,600 – or almost 10%. Tuition was still $41 400 a year.

These examples are anecdotal, but point toward larger structural change in higher education. How knowledge is being disseminated and shared is shifting, the demands and needs of students are changing, learning habits are in flux, and by necessity (albeit slowly) new educational business models are emerging.

Below is a fictional encounter between Megan, a mature-for-her-age high school senior, and her father, a factory line supervisor. Their conversation offers a peek into the cultural, behavioural, and technological changes that have affected higher education in 2020.

“Are you nervous, honey?”

“Not really,” replied Megan.

“Well, then open it,” said the father, referring to the notification she just received on her mobile device. It contained a secure link to the results of his daughter’s Secondary Education and Vocational Propensity Evaluation, or ‘SEVtest’ – as most students called it.

“I don’t know why they couldn’t have just provided me the results as soon as I finished the exam. I know the test scenarios are continually adapted based on my responses, and I’m certain the programme had my results immediately after I finished. Maybe it’s a psychological thing… an institutional leftover from the days when your SAT or ACT scores arrived by paper mail.”

“Just open it” prompted the father, “this is your ticket to a better future.”

Megan rolled her eyes. “No, it isn’t, Dad. At best, the test scores will help me understand where I should focus my energy. And besides, many of the careers suggested by the test won’t be relevant in a few years.”

“Please,” replied the father in a tone suggesting his paternal patience was being tried, “open the link.” Megan nonchalantly did so and absorbed its content. She showed no emotion.

“Well?” asked the father pensively.

Megan showed him the results and he embraced his daughter in a big hug. “Top Placement Status. You did it! I’m so proud of you.” Excitedly, he added, “It even lists ‘veterinarian’ as one of your top career aptitudes – remember how you always talked about working with animals as a girl? So what are you thinking? Harvard? Stanford? Northwestern? Maybe Colorado State or Minnesota for vet school? You can pretty much write your own ticket!”

Megan said nothing. Following a long pause, she then said, “You’re right, Dad, I can write my own ticket.” “That’s the spirit!”

“No, Dad, I mean I’m really going to write my own ticket. I’ll be getting the rest of my education from ‘Cloud University.’”

“Cloud University?” replied the father in a confused tone. “I thought taking classes that way was just for students who didn’t have any other options. You could go anywhere with your scores!”

“Haven’t you been paying attention to the news, Dad? Regular degrees from regular schools don’t work anymore. In fact, some universities are even offering low-performing students incentives to quit following certain educational tracks – such as elementary education and law – and instead pursue new fields of study. Traditional universities are lame . . . I want training to succeed in this rapidly changing world of ours. Most of what you ‘learn’, I could find out in seconds in the cloud. I need training in knowing how to use the vast resources that surround me, not useless facts to memorise. I’m going to put together my own degree from the millions of excellent and free courses now available – and I intend to help others do the same.”

“Megan, that’s not a serious option. How could you waste all of your hard work just to study online? I mean, why would you even think . . .”

Before he could go any further, his daughter cut him off. “Look, Dad, I’ve already received almost a year’s worth of college credits by taking advanced placement (AP) courses online.”

“I know and I’m proud of you, but you went to school to do it.”

“Only partially true – my French and advanced calculus courses were online because my high school didn’t have qualified instructors, but I could have just as easily taken my English and chemistry courses online.” Continuing, Megan said, “It might also interest you to know that the reason I performed so well on the SEVtest is because I used an online test prep programme that trained me how to think in a way that would help me give the types of answers the test was looking for. It won’t be because I studied endlessly about facts. The classroom-only learning mentality should have disappeared when the personal computer was invented. I’m telling you, it’s a waste of money to spend tens of thousands of dollars a year for a traditional education. Plus, who made the rule that four years is somehow the optimum – or magical – length of time to acquire knowledge?”

“But who’ll hire you without a formal degree?”

“Accreditation isn’t the answer, Dad. It’s the problem. Every year millions of college students graduate and are unable to find good-paying jobs because they aren’t prepared. What today’s best employers care about now is not ‘where’ you went to school but, rather, how well you perform on their own competence and aptitude tests. Today’s colleges aren’t preparing students for either one.”

“That’s not the school’s fault.”

“Yes, it is, Dad. Most of them are still in the business of providing average students an average education. The degree is barely worth the piece of paper it’s printed on. Most people are just buying an old, stale brand that has outlived its usefulness and no longer provides much in the way of nutritional value. Most universities do little to equip you with the skills that really matter – like intellectual curiosity, adapting to new knowledge, innovative thinking, and creative problem-solving.

“That may be, but with your scores you can go to a prestigious university. Think of the connections and contacts you’ll make.”

“True, but at what cost? Plus, it won’t be those schools that make me a success. I’m responsible for my own success, and I can educate myself for next to nothing.”

“But how will you get a job? I wouldn’t hire someone without a degree.”

“Many entrepreneurial employers are no longer impressed with a mere diploma, Dad. They want you to demonstrate knowledge – not show them a piece of paper that cost you or your parents a hundred grand.”

Download the pdf to read this chapter in its entirety, and watch highlights from Jack’s keynote speech at the 2013 EAIE Conference below.