(This is the second of two guest blogs by Lloyd Armstrong, University Professor and Provost Emeritus at the University of Southern California, and author of the blog, Changing Higher Education.)
Previously, I wrote about why the cost of higher education keeps spiraling upward beyond the willingness of most colleges to support and the willingness by most to pay for it. Today, I will look at how the response to those costs will change colleges by 2020.
Different institutions will begin to respond to the financial constraints in different ways depending on their particular conditions and missions. One of the most widespread responses, however, is likely to be a stepping back from the increasingly homogenized view of what “quality” means in higher education.
Perversely, “quality” is not currently defined by learning outcomes for students, but by costly surrogates such as quality of student services and amenities, quality of physical plant, or quality of faculty research – in short, the elements of the arms race which is defined by reference to the richest educational institutions. Lowering overall costs will require in most cases that institutions define their own unique educational niche – stepping back from the rich-institution inspired arms race. This entails sharpening and redefining institutional missions in order to create niches that are both valuable for students and society, and fiscally sustainable.
Different institutions will de-emphasize components of the present arms race in different ways, and will create some new, less expensive value propositions in their stead. For example, one component of the response of many may be to narrow their curricular focus to a relatively few popular majors, or to focus on pre-professional training. Happily, many will probably decide that a key component of their new value proposition will be an increased focus on learning appropriate to their new sharpened mission, and on demonstrating that effectiveness. Thus the colleges of 2020 may well show a much wider aspirational profile than what we see today, and one which is more focused on demonstrated learning rather than surrogates.
Another response that likely will be widespread is to increase utilization of the physical plant. This can be done by admitting more students, possibly moving to year-round operations. Of course, this only is beneficial if savings on the plant are not spent on increased instructional costs. For many institutions, this will mean that faculty will be expected to teach more courses and forgo summers away from campus- and many students will have the opportunity (and obligation) to break out of the traditional fall-spring academic year. Online learning will also likely play a major role in enabling more students to be taught without increasing plant or instructional costs proportionally.
One response that will be almost universal is greatly increased use of technology to improve both productivity and learning outcomes. In particular, online (and blended) learning likely will be a central component of cost cutting, increased learning, and increased access.
For the institutions with stronger brands, targeted use of online and/or blended learning will lead to increased learning outcomes, greater student satisfaction, and better utilization of faculty. It will also be used extensively for projecting the brand beyond the current geographic boundaries of the institutions. For institutions with weaker brands, the same uses will be found, but with much more aggressive implementation required in order to achieve fiscal sustainability. For example, groups of weaker-brand institutions might jointly share an online curriculum, and differentiate themselves through individual tutoring support and student-life amenities.
Online learning of all types and levels of quality will become readily available as colleges and corporations rush into one of the few areas that holds promise to increase productivity in higher education. A number of these programs will involve visible, major scholars working with the best experts in pedagogy, and have demonstrated high learning outcomes. The widespread availability of such programs will provide a major challenge for institutions that provide a “generic” education that can be easily and cheaply replaced by a high quality online program. (In fact, many of these low-brand-differentiation institutions already have significant financial problems because they have few competitive advantages.)
These low-brand- differentiation institutions will need to change their mission and approach in order to create a differentiated niche that provides value and competitive advantage. Many will not be able to respond creatively in a timely fashion, and will not survive.
Lower-ranked research universities will find it increasingly difficult to afford their current profiles: research universities are by far the most expensive form of higher education yet invented. In addition, overall research funding is likely to fall significantly over the next decade, thus making many lower-ranked programs even less viable. Options will range from completely leaving research and totally changing the faculty profile, to intermediate scenarios that involve a larger teaching faculty and significantly smaller research faculty. Overall, the value proposition for this group of institutions likely will shift in the direction of high-quality student learning.
All of this is on the cost side. But some additional changes will work on the side of the price students pay to get a degree. Numerous institutions probably will emulate Western Governors University and move to competency–based evaluations that enable students to move through the system at their own pace. Such approaches allow students to acquire knowledge from many sources, including work or online programs of their choosing, and get credit from the “home” institution by demonstrating competency.
Bologna-like approaches will also provide educational outcomes measures that will greatly facilitate transferring of credit from one institution to another, thus providing a diversity of different cost pathways to a degree. As a consequence, many four-year institutions may find that their first two years have been “hollowed out” by less expensive two year organizations specializing in quality transferable core courses. This loss of enrollment in the more profitable core courses will put additional pressure on the budgets of the four-year institutions, thus forcing additional mission change.
So for 2020, this is what I see: increased diversity of institutional missions, greater use of online and blended learning, 12 month academic calendar, fewer research universities, increased transfer opportunities, not all existing institutions will still be around, and student learning will be a key differentiating factor. Now what was it that Bohr said about predictions?