The college experience has been roughly the same for the last 100 years: You pick a major, find a school, buy the books, attend the lectures, write the papers, take the tests, get the grades, graduate, work to pay off debt.
For years, college was the best pathway to a job. But as costs continue to rise and the percentage of graduates finding work falls, students are beginning to wonder: What’s the real value of a college education?
"Charging people lots of money to provide them with skills they could learn from an Internet video is probably not gonna be a viable long-term financial model," says Richard Miller, president of Olin College of Engineering. "Knowledge is now a commodity. It’s really inexpensive and easy to get. Who’s gonna pay you for that? So now we’re in the process of changing."
But changing how?
Experts say that within the next 10 to 15 years, the college experience will become rapidly unbundled. Lecture halls will disappear, the role of the professor will transform, and technology will help make a college education much more attainable than it is today, and much more valuable. Indeed, a number of institutions may shut down. But those that survive will be innovative and efficient. Here’s what they’ll look like.
For college students today, success is measured in credit hours. Time spent in the classroom, reading, attending lectures, taking tests, all done with the hope of a passing grade. But all the credit hours in the world don’t guarantee students actually learn anything applicable in the workplace, and employers know this all too well. "I can’t tell you how many times I hear clients say, ‘I just can’t find the right person for this job, and I can’t go to colleges because the students don’t have the innate competency,’" says Michael Maciekowich, national director of HR consulting firm Astron Solutions, LLC. "In our business, there’s a competency required that is not learned in school."
Indeed, in one survey, 60% of employers complained that job applicants lack interpersonal and communication skills. They can pass a calculus exam, but they can’t identify or solve problems on the job, or negotiate, or lead a meeting. For the college students of tomorrow, these soft skills, obtained through hands-on experiences, will be the yardstick for learning, not how many credit hours or semesters you have under your belt.
Schools are already responding to the demand for this kind of education with programs aimed specifically at giving students tangible skills that are applicable in the workplace. College for America, an online branch of Southern New Hampshire University, was the first program to receive permission from the federal government to give degrees based on "actual learning versus seat time." Students advance not by ticking off classes but by proving they’ve mastered specific skill sets, or "competencies."
"They’re not just learning math in the abstract, they’re learning how to use charts or graphs to convey information, or how to negotiate with others to resolve a conflict," explains Julian Alssid, chief workforce strategist at SNHU. Because it’s all online, annual tuition is $2,500, a fraction of the average cost for most colleges. The program launched two years ago with 200 students and is projected to have 5,000 students in the coming year, Alssid says. As of last year, more than 350 U.S. institutions were dabbling in similar competency-based models.
To stay relevant, colleges have to respond to the demands of the workplace. The College for America exclusively admits students through their employers (though Alssid says they may eventually "go retail"), meaning the tuition costs are often covered by the companies in return for a worker trained in a specific skill set that’s in high demand. These kinds of partnerships are becoming more and more common.
"We think there’s a real value net worth being created by these more direct partnerships with the employers, and that has the ability to supercede the importance of the brand-name recognition or even accreditation," says Michelle Weise, a senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute specializing in disruptive innovation in higher education.
One dominant fear among academics is that online education will completely replace the physical campus and the professor. This is unlikely, at least in the short term. Students still see value in being exposed to new people and new ideas, and creating a network of valuable connections. But they won’t attend for four years. Introductory 101 courses can be covered quickly (and affordably) by massive open online classes (MOOCs) or bootcamps.
Once students have that information under their belt, they’ll come to the physical campus for a more hands-on experiential learning that can’t be taught online. "The explosion of all the different things that aren’t universities, their presence in the learning ecosystem, will both force and allow universities to recenter themselves around the kind of learning that can’t take place in other kinds of settings," says Randall Bass, vice provost for education and professor of English at Georgetown University.
The result will be a mix-and-match education. Perhaps a year’s worth of online courses, maybe two years on campus, another in a bootcamp environment. "I think the future of education will be one where we see a blend, with some part of a campus experience and an online experience," says Alssid.
"When universities move from being informational to being developmental, the nature of the major will change as well," says Ben Nelson, founder and CEO of the Minerva Project, an intense online program rounding out its first year in existence. "We already know that employers don’t care so much about the major."
In one recent survey of 318 companies, 93% of employers cared more about "critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills" than an undergraduate’s concentration. They need hires who can take on multiple responsibilities, which requires flexibility and a plethora of skills. "We need to stop worrying about trying to make them experts in very narrow fields," says Miller. "Instead, let’s focus on teaching them the process of learning itself."
Schooling will become more interdisciplinary. Instead of a degree in biology, emerging fields will combine biology and global health, or neuroscience and entrepreneurship. "The concept of the major will erode into something that looks like an overall portfolio with a bunch of microcredentials that speak to a whole range of strengths," says Bass.
You might ask where the educator comes into play in this new world of fluid learning. "It’s fair to say these changes are wreaking havoc on the way they are used to thinking about higher education," says Weise. Students don’t need a person to stand at the front of a room full of hundreds of students and lecture. "Now, because information is everywhere, it has to be about a special learning experience," she says.
A project-based college environment will look more like a kindergarten classroom than a lecture hall, with small groups and a teacher who acts as a guide. "It will be much more focused on skills of mentorship, or helping to be the sort of lead peer instructor on project sites where they’re bringing expertise in the way that the doctor might bring to a whole office of medical staff," says Bass.
"It’s not a faculty-less world, but I think that one struggle of the next 20 years is figuring out what it looks like to have a highly trained PhD-ed faculty that is still central to this recentered, more project-focused world."
Many professors know the changes are coming and are trying to prepare. Minerva, for example, has seen 1,000 faculty inquiries in its first year. "I literally cannot tell you the number of ultra-elite school presidents, deans, professors come up to us and say, ‘We cannot wait until your success forces us to change,'" Nelson says.
"Some places won’t make it, a lot of smaller places will merge or disappear because value proposition won't be there," Bass says. There may be debt strikes, bankruptcies, consolidations, and closings. The change will be swift and fierce, but for the better. "These are important institutions," Nelson says. "We cannot as a society afford to lose the university. It is in everybody’s interest to preserve them, assuming they reform."