The Future of Higher Education

The Future of Higher Education

Through the Looking Glass

Any self-respecting Nostradamus knows, particularly in these days of tumultuous and relentless change, the hazards of second guessing the future. Despite the hazards, it seems reasonable to speculate about the future of higher education based on experience in the present. That is, if no one holds us to such speculations about the future glass being half empty or half full.


The cliché that nontraditional students are emerging as the new majority on college campuses is dead. They have already emerged, and if they aren’t the majority, they soon will be.

The aging of the American university has occurred as the workforce has aged. Today, better health care is keeping the workforce fit, and the perils of a shaky economy are leading many older workers to conclude that they cannot afford to retire. What is higher education’s role? Employees who retire from careers and move on to post-retirement careers or volunteer jobs or other activities often require education and training to be effective in these new areas. They will turn to higher education not only to revitalize workplace knowledge; they will see colleges and universities as a way for personal enrichment and maintaining a vital mind.

Tech-savvy students and programs

While the Luddites of the world may wish technological innovations like iPhones, Skype and even the World Wide Web to go away, technology is integral to higher education. Professor Jay Box predicts “that everybody will soon have access to on-demand learning. In other words, from any place and at any time that an individual wants to learn something, it will be possible to do so.”

Moreover, social media will continue its popularity, but the sophisticated social media of 2061 will make Facebook and Twitter look like the telegraph. Such an environment suggests many unique delivery mechanisms. Harnessing such technological potential, and the anticipated growth of knowledge/information, will significantly alter the learning environment and will require educational visionaries.


No surprise here: the world will continue to shrink, thanks to the omnipresence of technology. It will become even more crucial for learners (and everyone in the 21st century is a learner) to become conversant in other languages and knowledgeable about other cultures. Since this will happen at earlier and earlier ages, students entering college will have several languages under their belts.

Nonprofit, for -profit, corporate universities, et al.

Many traditional academics regard incursions by for-profits like the University of Phoenix as trivial.

However, the success of Phoenix – with 200 campuses worldwide, approximately 500,000 undergraduate and graduate students, more than half a million alumni, and some 22,000 faculty members – cannot be denied. There will only be more for-profit institutions in the future. Corporate universities will add to the complexity of the higher education landscape. Consider, for instance, Hamburger U, McDonald’s management training program. A British higher education institution now recognizes and has accredited HU’s business management program; students there can earn an associate degree. A bachelor’s degree will not be far behind. Alternatives to the traditional routes to degrees will become the norm in 50 years. Choices will abound, certainly, but caveat emptor!

Show me the money

Financing higher education from both ends of the transaction – funds to support students and funds to support the institution – will continue to be critical. Federal or state funding, in the near term and for many years hence, is unlikely to come to the rescue. A university will need to become more entrepreneurial in every facet of its operation. For-profit universities are already competing for grants and contracts and research funding. The fight for the latter will be particularly fierce as for-profits cite their long record of dedication to the pragmatic and the professional.

Competition over dollars will have some good results, such as a greater interest in partnerships and collaborations, a focus on professional fields that will equip more people for future jobs, and initiatives in workforce education.


Nearly 20 years ago, Ernest Boyer called for the creation of a “New American College,” one that would “be more responsive to community concerns” and that would “define professional service as a central mission…a connected institution.” This commitment to engagement and service will become a hallmark for colleges and universities in the mid- to late-21st century, and service learning will be part of the curriculum.


For the College of Liberal Studies, many of these changes could appear challenging. Already, CLS is faced with mounting competition from local and regional educational providers, not to mention for-profit institutions.

In fact, CLS has long been in the innovation business. Decades ago, its first degree programs became models for adult degrees at other institutions. CLS was the university’s first college to offer fully online degree programs. And today, CLS is establishing a number of specialized degree programs in such areas as criminal justice, prevention science and world cultural studies that will appeal to generations of adult learners seeking to enhance skills or to grow in new areas of professional knowledge. CLS is already entrepreneurial and flexible in response to changing environmental circumstances and learner needs. At the same time, it is part of an outstanding public institution. It is easy to see, on this end of the next 50 years, the glass as half full.

Update: The College of Liberal Studies was renamed the College of Professional and Continuing Studies in 2017. 


Boyer, Ernest L. “Creating the New American College.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 9, 1994.

Darden, Mary Landon, ed. Beyond 2020: Envisioning the Future of Universities in America. Lanham, NY: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2009.

Olson, Gary A., and Presley, John W., eds. The Future of Higher Education: Perspectives from America’s Academic Leaders. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2009.

Staley, David J., and Trinkle, Dennis A. “The Changing Landscape of Higher Education.” Educause Review, January/February 2011. Retrieved from:

photo credit: Will Folsom via photopin cc

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Jerry Jerman

Jerry Jerman served as the Director of Marketing and Communications for OU Outreach before retiring in 2016. He continues to teach as an adjunct instructor of humanities and classic films for PACS and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.