CEO Keys: A Look Back on 10 Years of Projections About the Future of Higher Education

01/08/20   |  
Steve Fireng

As we move into a new decade, I have spent some time over the holidays reflecting on the various predictions that were made in the early part of the last decade regarding higher education and where things would potentially stand in 2020.

Which of these predictions proved prescient and where did others miss the mark?  One thing is certain: the world of higher education is evolving with new technologies, new teaching methods, and modalities. 

I looked back at various predictions made in the 2010-2013 timeframe, from publications including Forbes, Pew Research, Huff Post, and Inside Higher Education.  While there were some conflicting predictions, I endeavored to find the most prevalent themes and have summarized them below, along with my observations.

Following are six predictions made almost 10 years ago, along with my perspective as to how they have each borne out over the decade.

The Future of Higher Education: Revisiting Old Predictions

1. MOOCs are going to move from just a fascination to mainstream business. 

While MOOCs certainly still exist in 2020, I don’t believe that any of the original MOOCs (e.g., Coursera, EDx, Udacity) have been able to establish a viable business model strictly as a MOOC.  Most have leveraged their MOOC platforms to offer certificates and degrees embedded in broader OPM relationships.

2. The rise of the ultra-low-cost college degree.

This absolutely happened during the past decade.  Many low-cost offerings from universities like Southern New Hampshire have emerged, establishing in my view, a new category: the non-profit school that generally operates as a for-profit.  Many colleges and universities have found success with this model, which continues to evolve with higher-ranking schools like Georgia Tech launching a computer science program for less than $10,000 and Boston University and the University of Illinois Champaign launching lower-cost MBA programs.

3. Adaptive learning systems will be used in every higher education institution across the country. 

A challenge with evaluating this prediction is in how to define “adaptive”. I don’t believe most schools are using true adaptive technology, but many universities use this concept in their learning design principles.  In my view, the only group that seems to have truly used adaptive learning effectively has been Western Governors University.

4. Online Education will grow faster than traditional education.

There were (and continue to be) conflicting views on how the Internet would (and will) be most effectively used in higher education.  Many pundits spoke to hybrid learning (combining online and offline), and some focused their analysis and predictions on pure online learning. No matter how you slice it, this prediction proved true.  Between 2012 and 2018, enrollment in online courses grew by 41% while students not taking any online courses declined by 14%. The internet and online education are here, continue to grow and have allowed universities to innovate outside their core on-campus offerings.

5. 50% of colleges will close.

We certainly have seen many school closures this past decade, especially in the for-profit space, however, this prediction proved to be quite aggressive.  According to NCES, 375 institutions closed between 2006-2007 and 2016-2017.  Interestingly, 112 schools closed in 2016-2017 alone and we’re starting to see more mergers, acquisitions, and consolidations as well.  The closure trend certainly appears to be accelerating, but schools are resilient, and many are working hard to reimagine and repurpose their place in higher education either through online education, new products or better student experiences.

6. Higher education will explore new funding models.

With year over year tuition increases slowing, net tuition received decreasing, and state funding continues to decline, universities must continue to find new revenue streams. I believe the rise of the EDU 3rd party vendors has been a direct result of these funding needs.  One funding solution for these universities that have gained in prominence over the last decade has been to partner with an OPM provider (which generally fronts the required capital to launch the desired programs).

My overall reflection is that the myriad of predictions from the early 2010s has been a bit of a mixed bag; many have been proven out, there have been a few misses and a few more that might be borne out over time but have been slower to gain traction. 

What is not in question is that there has been tremendous progress over the past decade with new technologies (and the growing acceptance of those technologies) and that students have more choices today than ever before.  

While a decade certainly feels like a long time, it’s important to keep in mind that the wheels of change in higher education turn slowly.  Nonetheless, I would posit that this past decade has seen more change, evolution, and progress in higher education than the prior 3 combined – and this trend is sure to continue.  We still have many stale models in higher education, and many resistant faculty/administrations to influence, but hundreds of schools have embraced the change and many more are following.  In my view, it’s adapted to the times or risk getting left behind.

The Future of Higher Education: Looking Forward

Here are some of my predictions for the next couple of years (not sure I am in the 10-year predictions game):

  • Large employers will drive most innovation in higher education.  Whether it be opening their own internal universities or branding curriculum within a partner university, these businesses will influence schools to enhance their programs with the goal of better equipping their employees.  The focus will be toward certificates and micro-credentials to upskill employees faster.
  • Healthcare-related programs, those leading to professional licensure or certification, will continue to outpace all other programs.  I believe this will be the only category to grow substantially in the next couple of years.
  • Online interdisciplinary degree programs will pick up steam in 2020 and will grow quickly in the next 3 years.  This will be driven by the growth in hybrid jobs.
  • Due to increasing competition, tuition prices for business programs will continue to decline and many more schools will drop their on-ground MBA to go exclusively online. 

I wish you all the best in 2020 and stay in touch as we transform education - together.