5 different college leaders forecast future of higher ed

College and university leaders discuss the challenges they're facing now and where they see post-secondary education in the next 5-10 years
By: | October 13, 2020
Getty Images

“Where we find ourselves is holding a mirror up in front of us and asking the question, what do we need to do different?” – Eloy Oakley, Chancellor, California Community Colleges

For many higher education leaders, this unimaginable moment of time – a seismic shift forced by the COVID-19 pandemic – has offered a chance for reflection and a need to look ahead.

For better or worse, change has meant shattering boundaries, breaking from longstanding traditions, and facing those mirrors. And Zoom cameras, too. For some, 2020 is the end of an era. For others, it is only the beginning. They must make hard decisions about their institution’s future … and the future of their students.

So where is higher ed headed?

During a 45-minute virtual session last week at the Arizona State University-Global Silicon Valley Summit, top leaders discussed a wide range of the most pressing issues facing education and the quest for solutions. Among those on the diverse panel were presidents Carol Quillen of Davidson College, David Thomas of Morehouse College and Peter Cohen of the University of Phoenix; Ben Nelson, founder and CEO of Minerva College; and Oakley.

They each fielded questions from moderator Michelle Marks, the chancellor at the University of Colorado, Denver, and offered fascinating glimpses into their specific collegiate worlds, the problems they’ve faced and what they and higher ed need to accomplish now and during the next 5-10 years.

Eloy Oakley, President, California Community College system, which features 116 colleges across the state and serves more than 2 million students

Biggest challenge now: We were already experiencing enormous amounts of food insecurity, housing insecurity and economic disenfranchisement in our community. This moment of social and racial recognition have really put a spotlight on the role that we play in the communities that we serve. Certainly, we can talk about the challenges with access to broadband and technology. We have such a hard time in the state of California, the cradle of innovation, serving the majority of our students, because of this lack of access to broadband. … We also train and educate the majority of first responders, and we have to take responsibility and accountability for what’s happening and use this opportunity to make a change in our community.

Where we need to be in five years: It’s going to be incredibly important that we leverage the technology that we’ve been able to use during this pandemic as a stepping stone to do more. To really think about how we reach more adult learners, because states like California have had such a huge unemployment and underemployment of our adult worker population. Many of those jobs are not coming back. How do we leverage this opportunity to move students along to help more individuals get back into the economy and to ensure that our state remains prosperous.

Where higher ed will be in 10 years: This movement over the last 10 to 15 years to democratize access to education is going to win out. I think it will begin to destroy what we think about as higher education today. Things like the degree will no longer hold sway. Competencies, giving people opportunities will hold power. That’s going to force us in higher education to rethink how we’re organized to rethink what we value.

Ben Nelson, CEO and Co-Founder at Minerva, the most selective university in the U.S. with a less than 1% acceptance rate for 25,000 applicants and with a large non-American population

Biggest challenge now: Our educational aspect has been completely unaffected and unchanged. All of our classes have always been delivered via live video. But the operational impact was dramatic. More than 90% of Minerva students study not in their country of origin. For our students to get to their residence hall, they have to go through visa, immigration, flights, and move their entire lives, which is much, much more difficult this semester. … Despite the fact that we have 70% of our students in residence, we had to shift most of the experiential learning online.

Where we need to be in five years: We focus first and foremost on how we teach our students to think systematically. We believe that there is no better career readiness than giving students broadly transferable skills. The false dichotomy that we think exists – I need to have a certification that allows somebody to get a job – I believe that’s fundamentally flawed. None of our formal education trained us for the context situations and challenges that we deal with every day. What trains people to be ready is the learning of wisdom, how to actually encounter a novel situation and novel context, and draw upon lessons from other areas appropriately. When we think about how do we improve the student experience from what happens in class, or experiential, integrated learning – how they integrate what they learn into a work environment – it’s all in the service of honing the educational outcomes of the students. Five years from now, I hope Minerva will be unrecognizable from the Minerva of today, simply because the educational advancement of what we offer will be so radically different.

Where higher ed will be in 10 years: We should not become a society of a monoculture of education, which in many countries is dictated by a government and says this is the curriculum you will teach. My fear of what I think will happen is that despite the fact that we have a system that allows for such diversity of education, that we are actually self-homogenizing as a sector. If you look at most curricula at most universities, they’re exactly the same. Yes, you have upper-level courses, but the fundamental approaches, the sequences of courses, they’re not only the same, they’re also not curated in many different ways. My hope is that you’ll start to see a growing number of institutions stand against those trends, that will have very distinct educational philosophies with a well-thought-through curriculum with extraordinarily high academic rigor and standards.

Peter Cohen, president of the University of Phoenix, which started online in 1989 and has 30 brick-and-mortar campusesserving 87,000 , students, mostly working adults

Biggest challenge now: We made the decision last week for our staff to remain remote  through the end of May of next year and for our students, through the end of this calendar year. The most significant change is the amount of stress that our students are dealing with. Many of our students are moms with kids. Now they’re dealing with being a teacher, a mom working and being a student, and doing all that out of a home environment. We have academic counselors to support all of our students, and they’ve been working overtime to make sure that our students are getting the relief they need so they can continue their studies. The one thing that has surprised me is the persistence of our students.

Where we need to be in five years: More than 85% of students come to a university in order to get a better job or get a better career. The real responsibility of the university is to help those people progress in their career. As we move forward with the changes in technology, the changes in jobs, those careers are going to change over time. The idea that you go to school once when you’re young, and you have a job for life and you have the skills you need for life, are long gone. I feel like the rest of the traditional university field will serve adult learners throughout the course of their career and go well beyond degrees. I see us and I see other universities in the future expanding their offerings to be better align to what industry is looking for the shorter bursts of learning, that allow people to get those promotions and get those new jobs that they need, especially in this current economic crisis.

Where higher ed will be in 10 years: I would hope that there is a recognition of the need for the various types of institutions that all exist. Each of us has a very different philosophy, mission, vision, purpose. I hope that all those institutions would be judged on their outcomes, as opposed to essentially their tax status. … The tuition cost of education has to come down. If you leverage technology, whether it’s on the student side with artificial intelligence, or on the back office side through automation, you can lower the cost of education to allow it to be affordable for more people. And we won’t have to rely on federal government subsidies as much as we do today. … I’ve heard higher ed faculty and chancellors say, we’re here to do our job, it really isn’t my problem whether or not students learn. I hope that most of us still are focused on how we help our students succeed in life.

David Thomas, president of Morehouse College, a private Historically Black College and University that serves 2,200 students and is known for producing leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Biggest challenge now: The thing that has changed the most is that overnight, we went from having fewer than 10 online courses to taking our entire curriculum online with a group of students who quite frankly, had never done online learning in any significant way. … We are very aware that this is a moment of two pandemics – the COVID-19 pandemic and the pandemic of institutionalized systemic racism. Many of our students have been at the forefront of some of the protests and mobilization around the needs of their community – for example, food security and housing. That’s very much at the heart of the DNA of Morehouse, around nonviolent social advocacy. What we’ve seen in this odd moment is actually a sort of reinvigoration of our community and our students understanding about how they’re uniquely equipped to answer this moment.

Where we need to be in five years: Our role in higher education is to create the kind of citizens that our society needs. If we only focus on career readiness, I think we lose the opportunity to shape the values and create a place where students can develop a vision for the world that they want to create. Ours are 18- to 23-year olds who are in the process of answering fundamental questions of ‘who am I? who can I be in the world? what does the world owe me?’ So our focus has to be on creating citizens. Where Morehouse has not been is focused on lifelong learning. And that is a place that we have had to move into the 21st century and embrace the power of technology not only to stay in business, but to expand our reach.

Where higher ed will be in 10 years: We have to address the issues of affordability and accessibility to higher education. For small liberal arts colleges like mine, we will have reckoning that we cannot do everything that our students need and therefore begin to develop partnerships with other institutions, rather than seeing them simply as the competition. Figuring out how to leverage our various distinctive competencies. The reality is everybody entering the workforce today will have to be re-educated within the next 20 years because the world we’re moving into, half the jobs that exist today won’t exist by 2050. And we don’t know what the new ones will be.

Carol Quillen, president of Davidson College, a private liberal arts college in North Carolina which serves just over 1,800 students from the U.S. and abroad who largely live on campus

Biggest challenge now: A big challenge for us and a huge opportunity is how you build connection, both internally on campus and externally with the partners with whom we’re accustomed to work. A lot of the work at Davidson takes place in the community. And so especially now, given the challenges around systemic racism that President Thomas mentioned, it’s a different situation to work with those community partners when you can’t actually be out in the community. I think we figured out new ways of building and sustaining connection, both on our campus and with our broader community and business partners. We’ve also learned that we value the opportunity to be together. Our faculty have gotten really good at using new tools, digital tools, as they, as they build out these classes. I think that will serve us well moving forward. … We’re a college that was founded in 1837, and exclusively white for a long time. And coming to terms with the legacies of that and dismantling the structures that still reflect those racist assumptions is a big task.

Where we need to be in five years: How do we educate more people at a lower cost more quickly and with a clear sense of the value of what we’re doing? All of us will have a clearer sense of the role that we play in that broader project. And that institutions will serve a broader range of learners in very different ways as we continue to differentiate the sector and strive to ensure equity for all learners. Learners are able to identify which path within this sector is best for them, given their career and life aspirations.

Where higher ed will be in 10 years: I hope we have a broader societal consensus that education is a public good, and that we all have an obligation to the education of the next generation. One thing that will change is how the federal government and higher educational institutions interact with one another. I can’t say whether that will be for good or for bad. It could go either way. … One thing that I hope never changes is the often-mocked idea that education is actually liberating and that education is about more than a job. Education is about developing in people skills that are transferable precisely because they derive from the cultivation of deeply human capacities which we all share. We will lose the power of education if we succumb to the idea that it’s always about the next job.