Monday, May 14, 2012

The most important fact about the future of higher education

Many things will be true about higher education; only some of those things will be important. If your school is concerned about the future of higher education, it must both figure out what makes a fact important (in my book important facts are those that, if acted upon, have the potential to change the whole institution), and which important facts your school wants to focus on.

The most important fact about the future of higher education is this: all students will be transfer students.  By this I mean two things: first, that an increasing proportion of students will approach an institution bringing transcripted credits with them, and second, that even more students will bring expertise with them that they have learned outside traditional institutions, but which must be transferred into their new campus if that campus is to be true to the student's learning and aspirations.

Here are several ways in which the fact that all students will be transfer students will transform higher education:

  1. Traditional measures of success for access, retention, and graduation, will become obsolete. If most students bring credit with them, there is no such thing as a "freshman class," retention will not be controllable (since students will move easily among several institutions), and four-year graduation rates will mean very little, since few campuses will provide the entirety of a student's education.
  2. The idea of a curriculum will be unstable. Curricula rely on students taking courses in sequence, or at least in an order required by the institution.  But transfer students will not join an institution with the same academic backgrounds, and so therefore won't want (or shouldn't want) to take courses in sequence.  Curricula must look like networks, not lines, and learning must include opportunities to make meaning of learning outside of a standardized sequence of courses.
  3. The freshman year will be less important.  For the past two decades colleges and universities have focused on improving the first-year and placing distinctive programs in it.  But given the increasing number of students coming with credit and knowledge of varying sorts, the first year will be much less important than the last year, presumably the only time when most students at an institution will be able to have a common experience.
  4. The most important skills for faculty will be aggregation, meaning-making, and certification, not teaching, learning, research, or any other currently popular aspects of pedagogy. It will fall to faculty to work with students to help them aggregate their prior learning from a variety of institutions and sources, make meaning out of it, add to that store of knowledge, and then certify that that knowledge adds up to something that can be carried along.
  5. Colleges and universities will specialize more than ever before. If students are transferring knowledge and credits from many sources, only those institutions with identifiable specialties will be able to stand out among standardized options.
  6. The most important alliances between institutions will be among unlike, not like, institutions. Currently nearly every alliance--athletic conferences, consortia, lobbying groups, faculty development networks, etc.--are among similar institutions.  Westminster is part of the New American Colleges and Universities, a consortium of institutions of similar size and programming.  The University of Utah has just joined the Pac-12 to be with schools more like it. But in a transfer world, schools will want to ally themselves with a network of differing institutions in order to maximize learning for (and revenue from) students.  We will see more formal alliances between community colleges and liberal arts colleges, research universities and teaching institutions, so that within a network of schools a student can get all the learning s/he desires, and individual campuses can contribute specific things of value to the learning of particular students.

1 comment:

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