“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the
Higher education’s institutions are designed for sharing knowledge and creating knowledge. Some do both, while others specialize in one or the other. For more than one thousand years, this has been the model. During that time, teaching, learning, and research has changed as our knowledge increased, our pedagogy has become more effective, and as our tools and technology has evolved.
Change is constant. Today we are on the cusp of a transition that has significant implications for higher education. Pundits are cautioning that it is the end of colleges and universities as we know them. That the physical campus will no longer exist as the internet expands opportunities for education and that the existing institutional financial model is just not sustainable.
Yes, we are in a transitional phase, but we are actually moving toward a new golden era in higher education. Colleges and universities are being forced to innovate and change faster and more creatively than in the past. Learning is and always will be a social experience. Research depends on the lab and teams of researchers from disparate disciplines working together whether in the same space or in another institution half way around the world.
Although known for their ability to balance continuity and change, the changes that are happening now are transforming these institutions and new models for learning and research are evolving with myriad creative approaches being developed. It really is an exciting time.
THE WINTER OF DESPAIR
The number of factors of change – political, demographic, financial, and technological are increasing; the outlook for higher education does not look bright.
A Forbes magazine article predicted the closure of half of all colleges and universities within the decade.1 The following are thirteen factors leading to predictions of the failure of many colleges and universities.
1) The increasing number of institutional closings – In the past three years, from 2016 to the present, 20 private non-profit colleges and universities have closed as well as dozens of for-profit institutions.2 Massachusetts, where 17 institutions have either merged or closed in the past 6 years, is working on a set of policies to protect students from unexpected college closures.
2) The increasing number of institutions that have lost accreditation. The Wall Street Journal listed 20 non-profit private colleges that have lost their accreditation since 2000. At least 6 other institutions have been alerted that they might lose accreditation in 2018. The effect on students is significant. The loss of Federal loans, the difficulty of finding a job, and the difficulty of transferring to an accredited program. An institution that loses its accreditation will probably close.
3) Increasing number of institutional mergers – Fourteen colleges and universities have merged since 2017. Hampshire College is the latest to seek a partner. Currently, the mergers that are taking place are doing so with financially stronger partners. Mergers have been occurring for years and there are positive, successful examples: the Claremont Colleges, 1925, is a consortium of seven colleges that share resources such as the library, facilities, and some administrative units (Pomona, Scripts, Harvey Mudd, Pitzer, Claremont McKenna, Claremont Graduate School, and the Keck Graduate Institute). Another example is the Atlanta University Center Consortium created in 1929 and consisting of four HBCUs (Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College, Morehouse College, and Morehouse School of Medicine).
4) Increasing negative political climate and –
5) Increasing public mistrust of higher education – 4) and 5) are interrelated as the country continues to stay divided on many issues and the lack of support and trust expands, particularly since the 2016 election. Increasingly, colleges and universities are portrayed negatively as left-leaning, liberal institutions. There are also concerns about political correctness, trigger warnings, safe spaces, and the difficulty of conservative speakers to find a venue.
6) Increasing operating costs and declining state support – two related trends that do not augur well for institutional survival particularly for public colleges and universities and tuition dependent institutions. Since the recession of 2008, there has been a slight increase in Federal funding as state funding has declined. The last few years has seen a slight increase in state appropriations although the overall trend is downward. According to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities “Recent news stories, however, point to budget troubles ahead in Alaska, Connecticut, Montana, Minnesota, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island and Wyoming. More states will likely confront budget shortfalls as 2018 unfolds.”
7) Tuition, for the past several decades, has been increasing at a rate greater than inflation. Declining state appropriations is part of the cause, as is increasing student services, increasing financial aid, increasing faculty and staff salaries and benefits.
8) The decrease or flat growth in traditional high school graduates. The National Center for Education Statistics has tracked the total number of students in high school, public and independent, for the grades 9 through 12. In 1990, there were 12,476,000 students and in 2019 there are 16,696,000 students – an increase of 34%. By 2027, the number of students projected to be in high school is 17,038,000 – an increase of just 2%.
Other studies show a more concerning set of data. For instance, the National Center for Health Statistics shows a decrease in the US birthrate of 3% in just one year 2016-2017.
9) The competition from for-profit institutions – The number of for-profit institutions has increased in the past decade attracting students that otherwise might have enrolled at traditional colleges and universities. On the other hand, a greater number of for-profits have also failed in recent years.
10) Pressure to change the business model – “Why can’t a college be run like a business?” The familiar and valid question raised by countless trustees and others. Colleges and universities must be financially responsible, with balanced budgets, and careful planning. They are, in fact, a hybrid, complex, combination of business under a large financial umbrella: a service business, an entertainment business, and housing/residential business, a sports business, and a research enterprise.
11) Decreasing numbers of full-pay students – increasing the need for scholarships, grants, and loans and the discounting of tuition to attract students. Not a sustainable model.
12) Closing or merging of departments – The humanities are being hit the hardest as colleges and universities cull departments or merge them in order to reduce the financial impact of faculty and staff salaries and benefits.
13) Laying off of faculty – see 12) above.
THE SPRING OF HOPE
“If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome." -Anne Bradstreet
The following are 12 factors that predicts what I believe to be higher education’s embryonic golden era. These are examples of the many initiatives that are coming together to help create a new foundation of higher education.
1) Active Learning – Cognitive research has shown that learning is appreciably enhanced by engaging students actively in their own acquisition of knowledge. Active learning can be facilitated in a small seminar room or a large auditorium although it is enhanced by appropriate furnishings and technology. The concept of active learning is both inspiring faculty to creatively engage their students as well as architects to create the spaces necessary to support faculty’s ideas.
Mentored undergraduate research is another form of active learning. This pedagogical approach has a positive impact on learning and research space. At some institutions, mentored undergraduate research is available but not required. At others it is a senior year project; and at other institutions it is a three- or four-year component of the curriculum. See the College of Wooster as an example of the latter.
2) Changing facilities – Active learning is also transforming space to accommodate the various techniques that have been found to be effective.
The stereotypical active learning classroom has become common on many campuses: round tables seating six to nine students, each table wired and networked, each table having a wall mounted monitor, the room designed for small group interaction and collaboration.
This approach started almost simultaneously at North Carolina State University, M.I.T., and RPI. At NCSU the initiative was called Student-Centered Activities for Large Enrollment Undergraduate Programs (SCALE-UP). Although the acronym stayed the same, the name changed several times and ended with Student Centered Active Learning Environments with Upside-down Pedagogies. M.I.T. created Technology Enhanced Active Learning (TEAL). Both NCSU and M.I.T. created similar style rooms to support the pedagogy, but they were designed essentially for teaching physics. The space and technique advanced to become a productive way to engage students in other disciplines as well.
Changing the physical campus – Active learning potentially requires more space per student. Classrooms are becoming more flexible with moveable furniture that can be organized into various configurations and sizes, larger writing surfaces to include room for tablets and laptop computers, and technology.
The "flipped classroom" is no longer a new approach where students use a variety of on-line resources outside of class – either prepared by the faculty giving the course or by others, or are assigned a MOOC. In the classroom, students work on problems, issues, or skills either individually or in small groups. The faculty interact with students, answer questions, facilitate discussions, and have more time to work with students one-on-one or in groups. The classroom experience is much more effective and personal than in the past.
Another trend is the changing role of the faculty as they move away from lecturing to that of a facilitator. Seminar rooms with seating around a central table become useful and effective as students raise and respond to questions, share ideas, and are guided by the faculty.
Large lectures are also being transformed as faculty experiment with finding ways to actively engage students. The trend is to move away from the passive lecture to a more active learning environment. Some faculty are dividing their students into small groups – even within a large lecture hall – to respond collaboratively to various questions and assignments. The use of technology is critical in many cases.
For instance, Purdue University has developed an application called "Hotseat" that works with any digital device (laptop, smart phone, tablet, netbook) and utilizes Twitter, Facebook, email, and text messages for real time questions and responses. The questions are live on a large screen for the class to see. Every five or so minutes they are tallied and summarized and the most frequently asked questions are then addressed. The system can also be used to respond to a faculty question or to vote on which answer seems to be the correct response – similar to the clicker.
In terms of specialized spaces such as laboratories and studios, the melding of disciplines and the creation of new disciplines are having an impact on space type and the sharing of spaces. Many institutions are encouraging interdisciplinary teaching and research. Still, there is reluctance among some faculty and departments to do so. The increase in the numbers of Centers and Institutes is one approach that is used to move away from departmental silos. Centers bring together faculty from various disciplines to work on a common problem or research focus. The last ten academic buildings constructed on the Georgia Tech campus have all been interdisciplinary.
More than any other building type, libraries are changing dramatically and rapidly as they transform themselves from a warehouse for books to providing a tech-centered social and group collaboration space integrating library reference with technology and the Information Technology staff. On-line resources are growing and will continue to do so. Food and drink are no longer forbidden at many libraries and, in fact, library coffee shops are becoming common. IT staff, the Help Desk, and reference librarians are trained professionals offering assistance, guidance, and focused help.
The construction of new student housing is a way to attract students to their campus and be more competitive. A variety of amenities are included in the latest student housing projects. Amenities such as single rooms, suite and apartment style units – various social spaces: lounge, fitness center, music practice room, kitchens, laundry, and wireless access. In the past decade, the amount of gross square feet per bed has increased from 270 GSF/bed to over 350 GSF/feet as amenities are added.
3) Awareness that students have different abilities and learning styles – cognitive research has shown that students have different strengths and weaknesses in how they learn and that being sensitive to the various styles of learning is an effective way to engage students. Typically, these styles fall into the seven categories: auditory, individual, logical, physical, social, verbal, and visual. This awareness is leading to different approaches to helping students learn. It has also expanded our understanding of active learning and how to be sensitive to the various styles of learning.
4) On-line education – On-line learning has been around for years, although it has become much more effective, accessible, and compelling as technology has advanced. On-line education is being used in creative ways with hybrid or blended approaches. For instance, a blended course that is a combination of face-to-face as well as on-line. It could be completely face-to-face and be supplemented with on-line interaction between faculty and student or among the students using email, blogs, and on-line discussion groups. And it could be completely on-line.
Technology is enhancing on-line learning with video resources, virtual and augmented reality, interactive gaming, and most important, test taking and the awarding of certificates of completion.
On-line learning expands the college experience and expands the population of students who can, at their own convenience and time, complete a course or get a degree.
5) MOOCS – Massive Open Online Courses: a way to deliver content with few, if any, restrictions or prerequisites for enrollment. The first MOOC was in 2008 at the University of Manitoba. There are basically two categories of MOOCs – those that are university sponsored and those that are non-institutionally sponsored. University sponsored MOOCs include Coursera (Stanford) and edX (MIT, Harvard, and Berkeley). Non-institutional MOOCs include Khan Academy, P2PU, Udemy, and Udacity.
In the beginning, most MOOCs were simply video and PowerPoint presentations created by faculty – a continuation of old-style education but presented online. Today they are more sophisticated and professionally produced – more interactive with quizzes, tests, and short problems; collaboration and group discussion are important to the success of the student. Certification is possible with some MOOCs and microcredentialling is popular upon completion of a group of related MOOCs. Some universities, such as Georgia Tech offer a full on-line master’s degree (computer science).
Touted as disrupters and the end of colleges and universities as we know them, MOOCs have stepped back from the hype and have evolved into another important learning resource in our higher educational system. They are still evolving.
6) Community Colleges offering 4-year programs – A number of community colleges are offering Bachelor’s degrees to student who earn their associate degree. Usually a community college student can earn their degree spending significantly less on tuition than they would at a four-year college or university.
A 2018 study in Florida by the American Educational Research Association found that many four-year universities had an increase in the number of students enrolled where the community college had a similar four-year program.
7) Experiments in learning spaces – Classrooms are only 5% to 10% of the space at most colleges and universities but the idea of where teaching and learning takes place on campus is expanding. In addition to rethinking the classroom environment, institutions are expanding the concept of learning environments to include other space types, other buildings, the outdoors, residences, the student center, etc. The combination of learning spaces, both formal and informal, with information technology, and virtual environments is evolving.
8) Experiments in Learning – Throughout the country there are faculty experimenting with improving the learning paradigm. They are modifying their pedagogy, exploring team and interdisciplinary teaching, developing new technologies, and new devices. They are exploring the use of virtual and adaptive reality.
9) Fast track or accelerated degrees – A number of colleges and universities are designing degree programs that can be accomplished in less time, usually cutting a year off the traditional route. The University of South Dakota combines the last year of an undergraduate degree with the first year of a law degree allowing the student to graduate with both a bachelor’s degree and a Juris Doctor in six years rather than the traditional seven years. Syracuse University’s School of Information Science combines the final year of an undergraduate degree with the first year of its master’s program and allowing the student to complete the degree on-line.
The university of Arizona has 50 combined undergraduate and graduate programs that allow students to earn both degrees in 5 years. Arizona State University has seventeen programs that allow a student to graduate in two and a half years.
10) Hybrid institutional mergers: non-profit and for-profit – Many colleges and universities offer on-line courses and on-line degrees. The importance and benefits to these institutions and students can be seen in mergers that are beginning to occur. Although several for-profit institutions are attempting to become non-profit, it is the acquisition of the for-profit Kaplan University by non-profit Purdue University that is interesting to follow. By this acquisition, which has been approved by the State, Purdue instantly becomes an on-line powerhouse gaining the 32,000 Kaplan students. Kaplan will become a new non-profit, public university affiliated with Purdue University.
11) Institutional Collaboration – Colleges and universities have been collaborating in one way or another for many years. Libraries have been sharing resources, catalogues, and lending privileges. Community colleges and universities are creating partnerships where a student might attend the college for two years and then two years at the university to earn a bachelor’s degree.
A different type of collaboration enables these institutions to improve bargaining power for health insurance and other benefits, to reduce the cost of software, and to reduce the cost of furniture, and supplies. Institutions in reasonable proximity have created these associations to purchase common supplies: paper, pens, toilet paper, office supplies, etc. By purchasing in bulk costs can be reduced.
There are more consortiums now than ever before as colleges and universities find ways to strengthen their programs and reduce costs. There is of course the Claremont Colleges and the Atlanta University Center. There is also The Boston Consortium for Higher Education, Lehigh Valley Association of Independent Colleges, and the Associated Colleges of the Midwest.
The Associated Colleges of the South provide online and hybrid courses across 16 institutions providing more course options for their students.
There is the Five College Consortium consisting of Amherst College, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
The Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities provides a large array of cost saving products and services to its 20 members.
Companies have been forging relationships with universities and funding research in support of their industry.
Expensive instruments and devices are made available to researchers at universities across the country and even internationally. The National Science Foundation has been funding the acquisition of Major Research Instrumentation (MRI Program) for a number of years. “The MRI program assists with the acquisition or development of a shared research instrument that is, in general, too costly and/or not appropriate for support through other NSF programs.” This shared resource allows faculty to conduct research that would otherwise not be possible.
12) Technology – Long term, technology will continue to transform how we learn, socialize, do research, and collaborate. Other than saying technology will be faster, smaller, more convenient, and smarter, it is impossible to predict that future. Short term is just a little bit easier, but not much.
Personalized learning will become more effective as changes in technology can be fine-tuned to the needs of individual students.
“Heraclitus said that “nothing endures but change.” About the historical university it might be said, instead, that everything else changes but the university mostly endures. About seventy-five institutions in the Western world established by 1520 still exist in recognizable forms, with similar functions and with unbroken histories, including the Catholic church, the Parliaments of the Isle of Man, of Iceland, and of Great Britain; the governance structures of several Swiss cantons, the Bank of Siena, and some sixty-one universities.” -Clark Kerr
Our understanding of how students learn and the search for better ways of helping students to learn is expanding. It is a time of faculty generated experimentation – in trying different approaches to learning – in exploring new technologies and creating new and different facilities to encourage learning. It is time for faculty to move away from the straight dissemination of knowledge to helping students to acquire the knowledge that they will need as they move on in their careers.
There is more experimentation and more research on learning than ever in the past. Researchers seem to agree on several principles: that students must take responsibility for their education and learning, that active learning is more effective than passive.
How people will learn, where they will learn, when they will learn will definitely be different. There will, however, continue to be a physical campus. Yes, on-line education/learning will continue to be a major resource, but on-line cannot build the social skills required for the contemporary work environment. Learning will continue to be social.
Research, one of the three pillars of higher education (learning, research, and service) will continue to require a physical setting.
I believe that the university will continue to exist. There will be fewer, there will be newer models, they will be different, and yet they will be the same.
1 Michael Horn, Forbes December 13, 2018 – Will Half of all Colleges Really Close in the Next Decade?
2 National Center for Education Statistics
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