Changes are coming to American higher education. For years, politicians, government officials, academics and college and university administrations have worried about access, costs, transfer of credits, government funding, quality of high school graduates and matching education with labor force needs. Over time, other major concerns have emerged as well, such as the role of for-profit institutions and the growth of online learning, which those for-profit institutions fostered while not-for-profits — public, private and community colleges — lagged.
Today, new technologies and their applications have the potential to dramatically change the picture for costs, access, academic credit and online education. We have well-established universities expanding on-campus and off-campus learning opportunities. We have Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) providing students with access to content for free or for a nominal price. Schools of continuing studies are expanding their offerings and their reach. Online learning at many of the nation’s institutions is now second nature for mainstream local students, who casually mix face-to-face and online courses. A small but growing number of leading universities now draw working professionals nationally and internationally, who never set foot on the main campus, but who earn graduate degrees worthy of those institutions. While MOOCS are hardly a step forward pedagogically, they have brought distance learning out of the shadows and into daily discourse about the future of higher education.
The lines between for-profit and not-for-profit are blurring as partnerships evolve between community colleges offering two-year diplomas and for-profit colleges awarding the bachelor’s degree. For-profit corporations now provide the platform and technical know-how for expanding the reach of not-for-profit master’s programs at many major universities.
The digitization of hard-copy journal materials, pioneered by JSTOR for libraries, has evolved through new technologies to allow for online textbooks, fugitive materials and current — not only backdated — periodicals. This phenomenon should, and will, impact K-12 education as well as higher education. High schools should also have better access to college courses and content via online partnerships.
Educational institutions, and not just for-profit ones, will be able to better match labor force data to courses offered to determine needs. The specific labor needs of corporations, states and localities can be better addressed in real time through asynchronous online learning.
However, there continue to be many obstacles to getting the full benefits of the impact of technological change for higher education. Faculty resistance to online learning is one. Another is that the plummeting funding of state universities may push administrators into finding new sources of revenue while limiting their capital to invest in new online technologies. Thus, there is an opportunity here for the for-profit sector to provide capital.
Change is coming at a fast pace. Public institutions will need to behave more like private ones, ensuring they can finance themselves and deliver quality programs that benefit their students. Educational technologies will need to be employed for building new models of learning, ones that marshal expensive faculty time more productively and effectively, rather than relegating the majority of instruction to those outside the core faculty. Faculty will need to step up to their role in governance and demonstrate they can support change for the greater good. For-profit corporations will need to demonstrate their utility as partners in creating academic opportunities for students. Additionally, university and faculty leadership will need to mount a convincing argument for the centrality of the liberal arts as the lynchpin of what it means to be educated and what it takes to be successful.
Creative ways of reaching new student audiences — those of all ages, background and locales — will expand the institutional footprint in exciting new ways. No future academic enterprise will be blessed with guaranteed support and students. All will be vulnerable. But the net result, through collective leadership, can take us into a new era of higher learning.
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