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The future of college education: Students for life, computer advisers and campuses everywhere

The Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta is imagining what it might look like in 2040. (Rob Felt/Georgia Institute of Technology)

Predictions about higher education’s future often result in two very different visions about what is next for colleges and universities. In one camp: those who paint a rosy picture of an economy that will continue to demand higher levels of education for an increasing share of the workforce. In the other: those who believe fewer people will enroll in college as tuition costs spiral out of control and alternatives to the traditional degree emerge.

“We are living in an incredible age for learning, when there’s so much knowledge available, that one would think that this is good news for higher education,” Bryan Alexander told me recently. Alexander writes often about the future of higher education and is finishing a book on the subject for Johns Hopkins University Press. “Yet we’ve seen enrollment in higher education drop for six consecutive years.”

Alexander believes that for some colleges and universities to survive, they need to shift from their historical mission of serving one type of student (usually a teenager fresh out of high school) for a specific period of time. “We’re going to see many different pathways through higher ed in the future,” Alexander said, “from closer ties between secondary and postsecondary schools to new options for adults. The question is, which institutions adopt new models and which try desperately to hang on to what they have.”

One university thinking about those new models is the Georgia Institute of Technology. In 2015, Georgia Tech formed a commission on the future of higher education, and its 48 members were asked to imagine what a public research institution might look like in 2040. (I joined the group as an adviser, along with Wayne Clough, president emeritus of Georgia Tech and former secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.)

The commission’s task was audacious, and I must admit that at first, I was skeptical. In two decades of writing about higher education, I had seen many colleges develop extensive plans that ended up collecting dust on a bookshelf. What interested me about Georgia Tech’s attempt was its lengthy time horizon. Not only did the university imagine it would be around in 20 years, but the timeline allowed the group to think of far-reaching ideas that could be enacted over decades rather than just look for the proverbial low-hanging fruit that are the hallmark of many planning efforts.

“The fact is that to maintain affordability, accessibility and excellence, something needs to change,” Rafael Bras, Georgia Tech’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, told me when he unveiled the report at the Milken Institute Global Conference this past spring.

The commission’s report includes many compelling ideas, but three point to the possibility of a very different future for colleges and universities.

1.) College for life, rather than just four years. The primary recommendation of the Georgia Tech report is that the university turn itself into a venue for lifelong learning that allows students to “associate rather than enroll.” Such a system would provide easy entry and exit points into the university and imagines a future in which students take courses either online or face-to-face, often in shorter spurts over the course of a lifetime.

“Students who we educate now are expected to have a dozen occupations,” Bras said. “So a system that receives students once in their lives and turns them out with the Good Housekeeping seal of approval to become alums and come back on occasion and give money is not the right model for the future.”

2.) A network of advisers and coaches for a career. If education never ends, Georgia Tech predicts, neither should the critical advising function that colleges provide to students.

The commission outlines a scenario in which artificial intelligence and virtual tutors help advise students about selecting courses, navigating difficult classes and finding the best career options. The university has already successfully experimented with a new kind of teaching assistant in one course. In 2016, a computerized assistant named Jill Watson was used to guide students, who weren’t told until the end of the semester that some of them had been seeking advice from a computer. 

But even for a university focused on science and technology, Georgia Tech doesn’t suggest in its report that computers will replace humans for all advising. One recommendation is that the university help students establish a “personal board of directors,” which includes an evolving network of peers and mentors, both in-person and virtual, who will help graduates throughout a lifetime of educational and professional opportunities.

3.) A distributed presence around the world. Colleges and universities operate campuses and require students to come to them. In the past couple of decades, online education has grown substantially, but for the most part, higher education is still about face-to-face interactions.

Georgia Tech imagines a future in which the two worlds are blended in what it calls the “atrium” — essentially storefronts that share space with entrepreneurs and become gathering places for students and alumni. In these spaces, visiting faculty might conduct master classes, online students could gather to complete project work or alumni might work on an invention.

In some ways, as the report noted, the atrium idea is a nod to the past, when universities had agricultural and engineering experiment stations with services closer to where people in the state needed them.

Whether Georgia Tech’s ideas will materialize is, of course, unclear. But as Alexander told me after reading it, “There is a strong emphasis on agility and transformation so they can meet emergent trends.” This is clear: After remaining relatively stagnant for decades as enrollment grew, colleges and universities are about to undergo a period of profound change — whether they want to or not — as the needs of students and the economy shift.