4 Worries About Higher Education in the 2020s

Intensifying inequality, continued public disinvestment, challenges to master’s programs and a shift away from learning innovation.

January 22, 2020
 

If you read our book, Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education, you will discover that we see much to celebrate. The main argument of the book is that higher education is in the midst of an underrecognized and underappreciated renaissance in teaching and learning.

That we are excited by the advances that we see in learning does not mean, however, that we are unconcerned about many aspects of the future of higher education. In part, we wrote the book to document that positive change is occurring in our sector, and to argue that the image of higher education as tradition-bound and slow to evolve is only partially accurate. When it comes to learning, the future of higher education has a good deal of potential.

If we are optimistic about the future of learning, what are we worried most about?

We have lots of concerns about the next decade in higher education, concerns that could take up another book-length project. Instead, we wanted to share our top four worries about the next decade in higher education.

Worry No. 1: Intensifying Inequality

Higher education seems to be mirroring, or perhaps driving, trends in the labor market. Our graduates are entering a world with a small number of good jobs (secure, well-paid, etc.) and a large number of lousy jobs (insecure, low paid). The great middle swath of medium-skilled and medium-compensated work seems to be disappearing.

There are any number of good explanations for the hollowing out of the middle class that go well beyond the scope of this piece. Technology tends to get the first blame, but Uber drivers and Amazon do not exist in a regulatory or cultural vacuum.

The question is whether colleges and universities are going to mirror the growing inequities of the sociopolitical sphere -- an increase in concentration of wealth among a select few institutions (the higher ed 1 percent) -- or will higher education address, mitigate and perhaps help solve the growing landscape of economic and social inequities?

It’s difficult to be entirely sanguine about the outlook.

Public institutions such as community colleges, which today educate the plurality of all students, continue to see their costs increase and their funding erode. Will this get better? And will the great middle of the U.S. higher education ecosystem, including tuition-dependent privates and nonflagship publics, be consigned to endemic scarcity and insecurity?

A higher education ecosystem defined by concentrated privilege and persistent precariousness is not a healthy sector. It’s in everyone’s interest in higher education to be thinking about the causes, consequences and possible antidotes to institutional inequality.

Worry No. 2: Continued Public Disinvestment

We mentioned the eroding of public funding above. In 2018, states spent 13 percent less per student on higher education than they did a decade earlier. This translates to over $1,200 less per student. Largely as a result of rapidly rising tuition costs at public institutions, the level of student debt has ballooned to over $1.6 trillion.

Public disinvestment is contributing to wealth concentration and inequality across postsecondary institutions. Great flagship universities, such as the University of Michigan, have been able to replace state funding through a combination of recruiting out-of-state students and of raising tuition and fees.

In 1960, nearly 80 percent of UM’s budget came from state funding. Today, that percentage is less than 16 percent. Most institutions are challenged to bring in enough out-of-state tuition dollars or other sources of funds to cover state funding shortfalls.

The erosion of public support for higher education is one of the forces driving the postsecondary ecosystem apart. About three-quarters of all students attend public institutions. Restoring adequate levels of public funding should be the No. 1 issue at which every higher education association directs its focus.

There is little evidence, however, that those who lead private institutions are joining the fight. Partly, this is a result of the leaders of private colleges and universities having enough on their plates. The vast majority of private institutions are tuition-dependent and are facing their own challenges due to demographic headwinds, wage stagnation and rising costs. Leaders of wealthy private colleges and universities are fully absorbed in ensuring that their schools retain their status in the zero-sum game of rankings and prestige.

We think that a failure of all higher ed leaders to focus on public disinvestment is shortsighted and ultimately self-destructive. All of us in higher education depend on an educated citizenry and workforce. The U.S. higher education system works only if all its elements are healthy. We worry that without concerted effort, and advocacy from across all sectors of higher education, that the trends of public disinvestment will only intensify in the decade to come.

Worry No. 3: Challenges to Master’s Programs

Another reason to worry about growing inequality and wealth concentration across higher education is the likely disappearance of many master’s degree programs in the decade to come.

Today, many colleges and universities rely on master’s programs to make up for undergraduate revenue shortfalls. Tuition for master’s programs is not discounted at near the rate as it is for undergraduates. Unlike undergraduates, graduate students can borrow an unlimited amount to finance their degrees.

The number of master’s degrees conferred has increased by 66 percent since 2000 and tripled since 1970. Earlier projections suggested there would be at least a million students enrolled in master’s programs by 2029. The current projections, however, anticipate closer to 840,000 master’s conferrals by the end of this decade. This is a loss of $7.2 billion in tuition that colleges and universities thought they would be able to rely on.

And the projections of over 800,000 master’s students may be optimistic. At this point, we don’t know what the impact will be of the growing number of nondegree online certificate programs now being offered by elite institutions. Will tomorrow’s working professional rather have a business analytics certificate from Harvard or an M.B.A. from a regionally known university? We don’t know.

Even if the master’s degree continues to be the professional coin of the realm, there is the possibility that low-cost online programs such as the University of Illinois’s iMBA will absorb much of the demand. The Illinois iMBA now enrolls over 2,500 students a year, and it costs only a third ($21,384) of the average residential M.B.A. Illinois has shut down its residential M.B.A. programs to concentrate on its iMBA. How many other master’s programs that are unable to convert to low-cost online formats will be unable to withstand the competition from nationally known institutions moving into this space?

It is not that we think low-cost master’s degree programs are a bad idea. We are excited about how low-cost online programs are extending the promise of extension schools to offer degrees to working adults at more affordable costs.

What we worry about is the impact that online master’s programs at scale will have on deepening levels of institutional inequality. Only the colleges and universities with the best-known brands will likely be able to capture a national (and international) market of online master’s students. Smaller and less well-known colleges and universities, the ones most dependent on the tuition of master’s programs to balance declining undergraduate revenue, will be in the most challenging position to compete in this new low-cost online educational landscape.

Top institutions that offer master’s programs designed around intimate learning environments and high levels of faculty/student interaction will likely be able to navigate the growth of low-cost online degrees. These schools have the advantage of not depending on the revenue from master’s programs to balance the books to the same extent as less wealthy institutions. They can survive on smaller programs that are financially sustainable, if not large generators of extra cash.

Nonelite institutions will find themselves increasingly competing head-on with top schools in the master’s space, both in nondegree online certificate programs and new online degree programs.

Worry No. 4: A Move Away From Learning Innovation

We wrote Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education to mark what we saw as a shift in higher education toward an investment in student learning. This was brought about through a fortunate combination of new technological possibilities, a relatively recent history of attempting to understand and theorize about learning in higher education, and a recognition of the need to create institutional mechanisms to support technology, learning design and faculty development.

Some of this shift was reactionary. The MOOC anxiety of the early 2010s instigated much of this momentum. The sky was falling and everyone was looking for cover.

But with this reaction came a growing remembering of the importance of student learning to the fundamental mission of higher education. Universities and colleges were not only in the business of research, scholarship and basketball, nor were they only in the business of helping students simply get the skills needed to land jobs.

It’s not that learning ever stopped being key to higher education’s mission -- many colleges built their reputation on this fact -- it’s that it didn’t often get the investment and attention it needed across the higher education ecosystem.

Whatever the causes, many colleges and universities reinvested in learning in the past decade. They recognized that in the changing economic and political landscapes of the 21st century, the most necessary skill students could develop is an ability to be lifelong learners.

The triangulation of helping students mature into lifelong learners, of creating new knowledge and of contributing to the common good is unique to higher education. This tripart function, though, only is successful if student learning is given the same prominence, investment and strategic position as research, sports and fundraising.

We’re concerned that this prominence will diminish as the obvious threat from the outside is less visible, less dire. We’re concerned that anxiety about demographic shifts and economic pressures will shift attention away from what is fundamental to the current and future success of higher education.

Will we continue to reduce supporting faculty in the design and development of courses of study that encourage flexibility of mind and the necessary literacies and cognitive capacities of the 21st century?

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