Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The future of higher education

Higher education is dying. Colleges and universities may not realize it yet, but their days are numbered. Their costs are too high and their value-add for workforce success is too low.

I don't remember if this is something that Toffler explicitly predicted in Future Shock, but I remember having this insight while reading it. Future Shock is sitting on the shelf above me, but it isn't indexed well. So I'm not going to spend an hour shuffling through it to see if it is in there. Regardless, this is a Future Shock idea.

Society is changing. The pace of change is accelerating. The things that a person needs to know in order to be successful in the workplace is one of the aspects of society that is changing fastest--new tools, and rules, and innovations. (The only aspect of society that I can think of that is changing faster than the workplace is parenting.)

Higher education is one of the slowest changing parts of our society. The hard sciences and research fields change and adapt just fine. But the vast majority of fields are not hard science or research. Tenured professors in accounting, business management, literature, and even applied science fields like medicine hang on too tightly to the things that they learned when they wrote their doctoral dissertations. But the pace of change is now less than a lifetime. That knowledge is just too old.

Higher education also gives the least qualified person (an eighteen year-old student) a great deal of latitude in choosing what to study. Too many students choose fields that are ill-suited for them or too crowded for them to earn a good living later. The fact that the student gets to choose so much of their field of study is a tremendous inefficiency.

Institutes of higher education have a tremendously hands-off attitude towards students' behavior. Students experiment with drinking and drugs. Many students pay little attention to their studies. They have lots of fun, but they are not well prepared to excel in their fields.

There are other deficiencies in the existing system that I won't bore you with right now. If you've been through college recently you probably already know.

I believe that it is only a matter of time before a new form of higher education emerges. I expect this to be a new period of experimentation, with different types of higher education alternatives springing up and competing with the establishment. I have several ideas about what types of experiments will get tried. And I have several ideas about what the triumphant new system will look like:

1. There will be no cost to incoming students. The new student contract will include a pledge to give a certain percentage of post-graduation earnings for a number of years, in lieu of up-front payments. This payment structure correctly aligns the institution's incentives with the students. The best schools will earn tremendously more money than the worst schools, and will expand accordingly. This contract change will probably be the first major innovation, and it will drive all of the rest of the innovations.

2. The competition to get in will be much more fierce than it is today. Incoming students will be joining a family, and the family will be much more guarded about who gets let in. More interviews. More focus on references from graduates. More focus on experience. More focus on character quality.

3. Incoming students will be tested and evaluated much more thoroughly to find good vocational fits for them. The students will still have some limited choices. But the new schools' testing and evaluation systems will be a large part of their competition. Schools that do a better job of guiding students into careers that they succeed at will win over those that fail to properly guide their students.

4. New schools will be much more clique-ish, and engage "graduates" much more than existing institutions. This includes an increased focus on continuing education in every field. This includes more focused networking among graduates to find jobs. And it includes tapping successful graduates to come back and teach or mentor for a few years between corporate gigs.

5. Students will be more closely monitored and taught in what are currently regarded as "personal" subjects. Every student will have in-depth training on budgeting, purchasing, making friends, making good personal decisions with regards to drugs and alcohol, dieting, pre-marriage counseling, and a variety of other fields. New schools that fail to fully prepare students will be at a significant disadvantage against their competitors.

6. First year will be much more like boot camp. Students will be forced to learn discipline and teamwork early. Later years will be more free, but probably never as free as our current schools.

7. Most students will have on-campus jobs and/or internships working for graduates. These jobs won't pay much, but they will get real-world experience. Students will have less free time. They will have planned school activities nearly all the time. More like an intensive camp experience than the current system.

8. Students will get dismissed into the workforce faster. New schools will focus on getting students ready to be productive, and then send them out as soon as they are ready. Three or four years is entirely too long. One to two years is a better guess.

9. Graduates will come back to class full time several times over the course of their lives. The first planned trip back will be to cover management topics and gain more leadership experience. The second trip back will probably involve retraining for a new career or industry as the economy shifts and changes. Each trip back involves a new contract to commit a certain portion of your future income to the school. And each trip back will include an on-campus job, often mentoring and teaching younger students.

10. There will be more alternative types of education happening. Ropes courses, work-study programs, volunteer projects, internships, mentoring relationships, accountability partnerships. Students will expect to spend months away from their homes performing volunteer work, like teaching or nursing in Africa.

11. Students will rarely change schools. The only time this will happen is when someone truly flunks out of a good school and has to move to a lesser school.

12. No tenure for professors. The best schools will have higher turnover among the professors. Professors will be encouraged to jump in and out of the workforce--keeping their experience as fresh as possible. There will be a more permanent class of teacher assistants who stay at the school and administer things like grading and record-keeping.

13. Professors will take more control of the curriculum, and will intervene earlier with students who are not getting the work done. Student counseling services will take more control of student social life, and will intervene earlier with students in trouble. The new schools will be more like the extended parents that help the students land on their feet as adults.

14. The curriculum will be both more broad and more focused. There will be a wider range of required courses, including computer literacy, cultural literacy, logic, social networking, etc. Outside of a student's field of focus there will be mostly memory work and discussion groups. Inside of a student's field of focus there will be more independent research, creativity, and self-directed projects. Today's grad-level and doctoral level work will continue to slide down hill towards the younger students.

15. Doctorate-level degrees will go out of fashion and cease to be handed out. Some people will still spend years focusing their studies on narrow fields of study. But they will have to demonstrate their expertise with tangible results--papers, inventions, innovations. What we currently confer with a doctorate degree will eventually fade away into more robust resumes.

16. There will still be big time sports, but sports that do not have professional leagues will slide out to intramural. Football, baseball, and basketball teams will be filled with students who have a legitimate chance of going pro. At first, while there are still way too many teams, students with no chance of going pro will still get to play some. But the number of schools that can field competitive teams will dwindle, and eventually students who have no chance of going pro will not remain on the teams. Getting drafted equals graduating and getting a job in your field. The athletes who fail to get into the pro leagues will (contractually) have to pick a different field of study and graduate into the regular work world like everyone else.

17. If lawmakers don't intervene to limit the influence of these new schools--either in size or revenue streams--then they could grow to dominate the companies that their graduates join. New schools would focus on teaching the software produced by graduates' companies. Each school would become siloed and insulated from each other. This insulation is the biggest long-term threat to these new schools. They will have a hard time finding the right balance between investing in the business of graduates and ensuring students get a broad enough education to get jobs at other companies.

Overall I think that this system is better suited to the coming centuries.

I worry about the cliquishness--children will go to the schools of their parents and companies will be staffed exclusively by people from one school. I'm afraid that once the new schools are firmly established that this is unavoidable. I also think that I'll be long dead, and so it won't be my problem.

The first new schools will be capital intensive. Maybe there will be a "New Harvard" that works like this, founded and run by the trustees of the old Harvard. But I rather think that wealthy investors, like Buffet, Gates, and Soros, will build the first new schools.

This is exactly the sort of project that I would love to spend a few years building.

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